Looking back Ellie couldn’t even recall why she’d been there all alone in the subterranean darkness of the parking lot. Had she arranged to meet a contact in the relentless pursuit of another story or was she about to end another casual affair? What did it matter anyway, her life back then had been pointless without direction or sense of purpose. Life, what life? Did an aimless drifting towards an uncertain destination like a paper boat cast carelessly on a raging river constitute a life in any meaningful sense? That was the eternal conundrum but no matter how loudly she hollered into the dark no one ever answered. No merciful God bent down to whisper comfort in her ear. No benign aliens alighted from their shiny spacecraft to point her to the stars. The words of a children’s nursery rhyme echoed in the hollow recesses of her mind.
“Row, row, row your boat, Gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, Life is but a dream.”
In Ellie’s case more of a coke induced haze. At least it had been until that night in the parking lot. No more drifting now, she’d hit the rapids and there was no way back.
“Right up Shit Street without a paddle Sis!”
It had been Lee’s favourite expression. He loved to bring it out like a treasured possession carried with him all the way from the Old Country. But this time she was headed downstream with her eyes wide open.
The lights on the concrete ceiling did nothing to diminish the darkness instead they served only to emphasize its presence. She remembered bending forward to put the key in the ignition. It was then she saw them, four men standing against a beat up old convertible parked by the far wall. The level was otherwise empty. A wave of anxiety swept over her like a cloud across the sun. Alone in a deserted parking lot was not a good place to be, not in downtown New York. These guys were definitely not dressed for a board meeting and it was a sure bet they didn’t belong to the local neighbourhood watch.
With difficulty she suppressed the panic rising in her throat. Stay calm. Just put the key in the ignition and turn the damn thing. Sure, her cover would be blown but at least she’d parked near the exit as she always did. She almost smiled. It was the price you paid for living in the Big Apple, a carefully cultivated neurosis that might just help save your butt in a crisis. Her mother’s parting words of maternal advice before she flew the nest forever didn’t seem so flippant now.
“Kick them hard in the goolies kid. It may not stop them but it will sure as hell reduce their enjoyment.”
Those words and a can of ‘mace’ had been her mother’s parting gift and eloquently summed up what she felt about her daughter’s decision to move to New York. Her father had said nothing just hugged her tight before turning away. She guessed that after Lee this was one goodbye too many.
The can of mace’ was still in the glove compartment. Ellie had rejected the idea of carrying the stuff around with her. There was no logical reason why she shouldn’t except it felt like a portable lightning conductor. Denying the possibility of having to one day use it she believed would somehow lessen the risk of assault.
She could no longer deny however that the fact it was within reach was a comfort, however small. Her hand trembled as she inserted the key in the ignition. What if the starter motor seized up or she slipped the clutch and crashed the gears? What if the heap of junk simply wouldn’t start? Her imagination refused to come to heel. It was only a matter of time before they turned their heads slowly towards her, yellow smiles of anticipation lighting glazed eyes as they sighted the woman alone in the car, the dumb helpless female.
She was still attractive. Hell, this was no time for false modesty, she was desirable and they would want her. They would come loping across the concrete bay, sneakers beating the rhythm of the pack, panting like wolves, zippers open at the ready. Should she try and fight them off and scream for help, or would that make them worse, enflame their passions and incite them to violence? Better perhaps to open the door and offer herself than force them to tear her clothes off with filthy polluted hands before splaying her over the hood of the car and taking her savagely in turn. How would that look in the N.Y.P.D. Rape Suite?
“You sure you didn’t provoke them miss?”
“Didn’t put up much of a fight did you honey?”
“Why didn’t you get the hell out of there? We checked out your car, there’s nothing wrong mechanically.”
“What was an attractive young woman like you doing alone in a downtown parking lot?”
She had been alone ever since Lee left. She was still alone.
Better to wait. They hadn’t seen her and they hadn’t moved. They didn’t look like guys on the prowl for motors or action. She relaxed a little. They appeared preoccupied, probably some dealer and his clients anxious for a fix. Ellie managed a faint smile. She felt foolishly melodramatic. Her mother’s paranoia was obviously a genetic thing.
The smile died stillborn on her lips. She was conscious that her hands had tightened on the steering wheel. Without looking she knew the knuckles were as white as the pallid skin of a corpse, Lee’s corpse. But she couldn’t look, couldn’t avert her eyes couldn’t even blink. She was compelled to gaze straight ahead at the grisly tableau unfolding before her.
An argument had broken out. It didn’t seem much to get excited about at first, maybe a heated disagreement over the price of the merchandise. Then without warning, almost as if it had been choreographed, two of the group grabbed another by the arms. It was the efficient combination of speed and violence that caused her stomach to cramp and her skin turn clammy. Something had entered the situation, something ugly something almost tangible, something evil. This part she had never revealed to anyone, sometimes even doubting whether it was not just a retrospective reaction that clothed ugly events in a subjective malevolence her mind imposed upon reality, however hateful that reality might be.
Yet she had never felt that way about Lee’s death. Pointless? Absolutely! Reality in her experience mostly was pointless. Traumatic as his death had been she had never invested it with a spiritual dimension. For wasn’t evil a spiritual concept and Ellie rejected all things spiritual. It was the one thing she and Marx had in common, that was Karl not Groucho.
Brutal! The way they had handled the kid had been brutal. No other word came close. They were big guys, built like football players who’d forgotten to take their shoulder pads off before they came home. The kid’s feet literally left the ground. He hung there suspended on his human gallows, arms twisted grotesquely behind his back, writhing in agony and fear. It was the fourth guy who really creeped Ellie out. He stood there casually observing the kid’s despair. Actually savouring it like some lush wine freak swilling the kid’s fear and pain around his mouth before spewing the contents and reaching for the full bottle.
Ellie could just make out the kid’s features drawn and ghastly under the garish neon lighting. His eyes rolled around in his head while his lips tried desperately to form words through the contortions of agony that twisted them out of control. Ellie guessed he was pleading. She also guessed he was wasting his time. Never in her life had she so wanted to be wrong. The fact struck her like a blow. Not even when the official telegram arrived.
“Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
Her brother’s death had been both intensely personal and strangely remote. The grief she bore daily and yet she resented him leaving her, denying her the opportunity to be with him, share with him as much as it is possible to share another’s death.
This though was different. She was witness to the boy’s agony, silently acquiescing to his suffering. All she need do was sound the horn, keep blasting it until help came but she knew she could not. Pointless as she felt her life to be it was life, her life and it was precious. Too precious to waste on some junkie who would probably be blown away in a dispute over whose turf is whose before he was out of his teens. Deep down she knew that no matter what she did the kid was a dead man walking, or to be precise, dangling. Part of her was disgusted with the cowardice she touted as pragmatism. Fear held her chained. No longer would she be able to shake her liberal head in horror at the outrages of Auschwitz. She was party to this youth’s personal Calvary but what could she do? What could anyone have done? What right does anyone have to judge if they’ve never been there? Never pretended the children you were herding on the trains were going to somewhere safe. Never said to yourself those kids starving on your TV screen would starve anyway? Even if you actually got off your butt and did something, anything.
Ellie lived in a violent city in a violent world. Evidence was littered all around, the emotional and psychological junk of a heart sick society. She had friends who’d been mugged on the subway and on the street but by and large she kept to tried and tested routes. Provided you didn’t stray too far from your neck of the woods you were relatively safe. If you acted like Goldilocks chances are you’d be eaten by the bears and she’d wandered far from the path and the bears had come home hungry. This was not something you read about over breakfast wearing a disapproving frown this was the real thing and Ellie was scared.
Livid scars of graffiti framed the boy’s head forming a grotesque and hellish halo. The fourth guy was nothing more than a silhouette, a man shaped hole in the darkness. No, more than that, he was the source of that darkness itself. As the sun radiates light so darkness emanated from his presence. This was crazy, get a grip girl. In a moment this would be over, finished. The kid would get a slapping and once the goons were satisfied they’d scared him shitless they’d leave. All she had to do was sit tight. That’s what her head said, her heart knew different.
If it were possible her grip had tightened on the steering wheel and her mouth opened involuntarily ready to release a scream she knew she would never utter. Shadow man had drawn a knife and was holding it above his head. It was a strange gesture and held a significance that initially eluded her, a nagging thought that hid in the deep recesses of her subconscious. The knife fascinated her. Its broad, cruelly-curved blade glinted in the diffused lighting that crouched against the wall as if it feared the encroaching darkness. The bastard was taunting the boy, showing him the blade. It was then a memory stepped unbidden over the threshold of her consciousness to the forefront of her mind, a knowledge she had suppressed like some dark secret that must never see the light of day.
As a child back in the Old Country of Wales she had been taken to Sunday school, cleaned and polished like best china. Grim stone Bethel’s, Salem’s, Moriah’s and Hebron’s jealously guarded the religious conscience of a nation jostling each other on every terraced street corner for possession of the spiritual high ground. She could not recall the name of the chapel but she remembered vividly a picture that hung on the ante room wall where her class was held.
A tall, gaunt fierce man with wild eyes and sinewy, muscled body strode purposefully up a rugged mountain slope. At the time she never understood why he was wearing a nightgown and carrying a bundle of sticks. Maybe he was just crazy. That happened to old folks like Grandpa sometimes. What really freaked her was the knife he carried in his free hand, a cruel curved blade that had given Ellie nightmares. A small child trotted dutifully behind him. The child was also dressed in a striped night gown. One Sunday she worked up enough courage to ask the teacher who the fierce man was.
“Abraham,” her teacher had replied through pursed lips as though Ellie had asked the meaning of a dirty word. If it was meant to deter Ellie it didn’t work.
“Who’s the little boy?” Ellie persisted.
The teacher paused as if composing herself before replying. “That’s Isaac, Abraham’s son,” replied the teacher with a finality she assumed would close the subject there and then.
Ellie refused to take the hint. Even at the tender age of six she had the journalist’s instinct for a story and the sheer gall to make sure she got it.
“Where are they going?”
For a moment the teacher eyed Ellie with a look that would have withered most grown folks let alone a child. Ellie’s serious grey eyes just stared right back and being wise enough to recognise a spirit as determined as her own the teacher relented. Ellie sensed she would get her story.
“Abraham is taking Isaac to a place God told him to go.”
“Why?” Ellie had no idea how difficult a question this was to answer.
The Sunday school teacher took off her spectacles and wiped them slowly on the sleeve of her silk blouse. Ellie guessed she was playing for time.
“This is definitely not one of my favourite stories Ellie,” she confessed hoping this would suffice. It didn’t, Ellie’s curiosity was fully aroused and she fixed the teacher with questioning eyes. The teacher sighed. “God was testing Abraham,” she explained.
Ellie was really puzzled now, this story wasn’t going to where she expected.
“You mean like in school?”
Ellie was intrigued nobody told her God handed out tests, especially to grown-ups.
“I suppose, yes.” The teacher attempted a smile but it was unfamiliar territory. Ellie continued to stare at her through those unnerving grey eyes. “God wanted to see if Abraham would obey Him no matter what he asked.”
Ellie nodded knowingly. She understood the obedience thing, she understood consequences too.
“Ellie apologise to Jennifer at once!” demanded her mother. Could Ellie help it if Jenny was a regular wimp? Whatever, she knew Mam would brook no dissent, she either apologised or got a paddling, but sometimes, just occasionally it was almost worth the humiliation.
Her teacher had half turned away assuming the conversation was over, silently complimenting herself on how well she had handled a delicate situation. She would ask the deacons if the picture could be removed before she was faced with a similar uncomfortable encounter.
“You haven’t told me what the test was.” The child’s voice was insistent almost accusing. Desperately she tried to think of an excuse to leave, not to turn round and look into those eyes that bored into her demanding answers she was reluctant to give. Truth was, if she allowed herself to look in the mirror, she was still searching for answers herself. “Miss?” The child would not be denied. Slowly she turned to face Ellie.
“God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son.”
Probably the child wouldn’t understand the significance of that dreadful word, S-A-C-R-I-F-I-C-E. She had spent most of her adult life exploring every nuance as she burned on the smouldering pyre of her mother’s infirmity. For the best part of twenty interminable years she lived in hope that some day the knife would fall on one of them.
“God wanted Abraham to kill his little boy?”
The horror in the child’s voice echoed the horror she shared and now she feared the child would recognise it in her.
“God just wanted to know if Abraham loved him Ellie.” She was scrabbling around in the dry dust of her own spiritual wilderness but Ellie’s eyes were no longer focused on her. Ellie’s gaze was fixed on a point beyond her left shoulder where the Reverend Thomas had fixed a large wooden plaque on which was inscribed, “GOD IS LOVE”. She understood what Ellie was thinking as she read the words and pictured the fierce man with the cruel knife obediently following the command of a demanding God. It was a paradox she had wrestled with for years. That the weight of it had fallen on the child pained her more than she thought possible.“It’s alright Ellie, Abraham didn’t do it, God stopped him in time.” She realised her explanation had added to the child’s confusion, she read it in her face. “God is Love Ellie, that’s why he let his own son die instead of Isaac, instead of all of us.” She was sinking up to her neck in theological quicksand. The child’s wide eyes betrayed her revulsion. Why was faith so difficult to explain?
“If God let his son die then how is He love?”
Ellie was filled with an indignation that was slowly turning to rage. She hated this place and the God who lived in it. The conversation was over, Ellie turned and fled.
Her parents were furious when she turned up on the front porch thirty minutes early and alone. Reverend Thomas followed hard on her heels red-faced and apologetic but Ellie’s father had been in no mood to compromise. Reverend Thomas was given ample opportunity to turn the other cheek that afternoon. Never a religious man Ellie’s father seized the moment to sever his family’s tenuous connection with the chapel, firmly slamming the door in God’s face. When the news of Lee’s death came years later it was too late to open the door and let Him in.
SACRIFICE! The word reared its ugly head like a rattler about to strike. It made no sense but Ellie was sure that what she was about to witness in that underground lot was an ancient ritual whose roots reached down to the dawn of time. But this victim wasn’t meekly following his executioner to the appointed place. Big as they were the goons who held the boy had a struggle on their hands. The appearance of the knife infused him with a strength that was almost superhuman. He writhed and twisted in a paroxysm of terror his head rocking backwards and forwards in response to the violent exertions of his body. He was screaming now, the wild uncontrollable shriek of an animal who senses it is about to be slaughtered. Surely someone would hear and summon help.
She listened in vain for the comforting wail of sirens as the cavalry equipped with the latest set of wheels charged over the hill. But there would be no cavalry, no reprieve, no stay of execution. A cold hand squeezed clammy fingers round her heart as truth broke upon her. This was hostile territory and they controlled who came and went. It was all a set-up, preordained. These things should not be rushed. Things! What things? Why didn’t she just turn the key in the ignition and drive the hell out? Because there was no way out, every exit would be guarded until, until what? Until the appointed time had passed.
The guy with the knife was slowly unbuttoning the kid’s jacket. He moved with the deliberate and consummate ease of a seasoned executioner. Ellie had to remind herself this was New York in the terminal throes of the twentieth century not the frigging Middle Ages, all the guy needed was a hood and an axe. She wasn’t worried now about being discovered, not that she could have moved if she wanted to any more than the poor helpless kid whose agony she shared. They weren’t interested in her. This was something deeply personal and despite the waves of revulsion that swept over her she felt like an outsider who has just barged embarrassed into another family’s dispute. Part of her wanted to apologise for just being there.
Greg had recently taken her to a movie he’d mistakenly thought she’d enjoy, probably a prelude to getting her laid. He’d been wrong on both counts. Greg had made the connection between her interest in her Celtic roots and the theme of the movie. He figured she would be overwhelmed by his thoughtful sensitive nature and overcome by nostalgia and sentiment she’d be putty in his caring hands. It was a loose connection, but then all Greg’s connections were mostly loose. Mel Gibson she loved the movie she hated. She was too knowledgeable about her Celtic heritage to regard it other than sentimental fabricated bullshit. However the last scene where Mel had been ceremonially disembowelled in full view of a crowd of raucous and appreciative extras had been particularly disturbing. Mel had borne the unspeakable mutilation inflicted upon him with stoic heroism, what else? The young man she was looking at through the windscreen of her car did not have the benefit of knowing the director would cry, “Cut”, when proceedings got out of hand.
At first he tried to avert his eyes so he wouldn’t have to look at the blade that was about to rip down deep into his vital organs. It was a sensible tactic. When you’re sat in the dentist’s chair never look at the drill if you want to keep your knickers dry. But Shadow Man kept waving it in front of the boy’s face while urine dripped off the ends of the boy’s sneakers forming a puddle on the concrete floor. Ellie wished Mel could be sat alongside her in the passenger seat right now.
“See Mel, you got it wrong. This is what it really, really, really looks like.”
The kid was thrashing his head from side to side, hollering into the dark, his screams amplified as they recoiled off the passive walls echoing like the cries of lost souls seeking exit from purgatory. Faced with this horror why was she thinking of a jerk like Greg? She knew very well why, she was desperately trying to hang on to normality but her grip on the mundane was loosening by degrees. Below her yawned a chasm called chaos.
Obviously pissed by his victim’s reluctance to play ball Shadow Man grabbed the kid roughly by the jaw and held the cutting edge of the blade against the boy’s face. Still the boy refused to look directly at it as though like Ellie with the ‘Mace’ he too could deny reality by ignoring its existence. It “was then it happened.
“One enchanted evening, You may see a stranger, You may see a stranger, Across a crowded room. . .”
Like Excalibur rising from the murky depths of her subconscious the words of the musical surfaced in her mind. Odd, but it didn’t strike her as incongruous. It wasn’t exactly a room and it wasn’t exactly crowded but the stranger was there and he was looking straight into her eyes. His terror and her horror fused and she couldn’t look away. He wouldn’t. Suspended between heaven and hell, life and death, their eyes met.
“Please God,” she whispered into the dark, “let him look away.” She was all he had left but she was no longer thinking of him, she was Peter outside the Hall of Judgement. “Look away you bastard look away!”
If just one anguished cry for help broke from his lips as he hung from his cross tonight she would be with him in paradise or hell or just plain old fashioned oblivion. She was with the mob now, one with them, except it wasn’t good ‘ol Mel up there as they, as she, screamed “Crucify Him.”
He understood, she saw it in his eyes.
She saw something else too, something that still haunted her. She saw his pity and his forgiveness. Then he was gone. With the sudden violence of a summer storm his head arched backwards and his whole body stiffened, legs jerking in unnatural cramped movements that gradually subsided into a spasmodic twitching before suddenly relaxing until they dangled limply above the soiled floor. Shadow Man had gutted him as if he were a dead tuna on a hook. Bloodied entrails slopped around Shadow Man’s feet.
Time slowed to a single freeze frame. The mutilated body of the young man sagged grotesquely, a giant manikin in the arms of his slayers. But Ellie no longer gazed on the bloodied body of a stranger she was staring at Lee, at the ugly gaping holes in the fabric of his combat jacket through which blood oozed in slow dark rivulets, the scarlet ebb tide of his life. He was supported by two soldiers, neither of them old enough to have graduated from college. Naked fear lit their eyes. Every few seconds they kept glancing over their shoulder as they tried to drag their burden through the waterlogged paddy field that sank beneath each step dragging them down deeper.
“Leave him or we’ll never make it.”
“We can’t just leave him.”
“He’s finished no point us all going down.”
They laid him as gently as they could on a furrow of relatively dry earth.
“Hold tight Lee we’ll be back,” a promise that echoed hollow thirty years down the line.
Lee raised his head and watched them through reproachful eyes as they waded knee deep through the mud. Only now it wasn’t his buddies leaving him to die he was looking at, it was Ellie.
“You too, huh Sis?”
She bit her lip and struggled to hold back the tears. There was little point trying to answer those accusing eyes, he was right. A stranger in a parking lot or her brother in a Vietnamese paddy field what difference did time or space make, betrayal was still betrayal. Lee had died for the flag, for the concept of America that was haemorrhaging as badly as his broken body. He died for a flawed ideology born of the paranoia that had traumatized a generation.
Ellie would never forget the day the brown paper parcel stamped with the insignia of the U.S. Army had been delivered by mail. Her mother had actually been made to sign for it. They might as well have sent Lee’s corpse by express delivery and asked for a receipt.
“Sorry if it smells a bit heavy Miss. Been in the back of the truck a while.”
Ellie’s mother had placed the parcel on the dining table unopened. Neither of them spoke avoiding its intrusive presence until her father came home that evening. They stood aside and watched ashen faced as he fumbled with the swathes of sellotape. Secretly Ellie hoped he would quit and toss it unopened in the trash can. Maybe he should have. For what seemed an eternity they waited until the contents had been torn free from the last layers of brown paper. Her father’s reaction had been to drop it onto the table around which they had shared so many happy times together. For a moment Ellie thought he was about to collapse. Gripping the back of one of the chairs for support he simply bowed his head. Ellie had never heard her father cry before, not like this, not wild uncontrollable sobs that shook his whole body. Her mother ignored her husband’s distress and leaning forward calmly, too calmly Ellie thought, lifted the object from where it lay in a crumpled untidy heap.
It was Lee’s shirt, the one he had been wearing when the gooks had caught him in their crossfire. Ragged holes framed with blackened blood stains stared at them like blind eyes. Her mother lifted it tenderly to her cheek as though it were Lee she was caressing, Lee back from the dead to embrace his mother one last time before returning forever like Orpheus to the land of shadows. As time passed Ellie almost learnt to forgive the army for what they’d done to Lee but she could never forgive them for making her father cry. She wondered if anyone would weep for the boy whose bloodied remains they were laying out in front of her. Her mind fled back to her father.
The irony that would torment him until death eventually released him from his burden of guilt was that they had left the Old Country fearing the out break of a third world war. Ellie’s father had fought in World War II and witnessed its horrors first hand. He never spoke about his experiences but it was what motivated their leaving to seek a new life in America. If there was going to be another war, he reasoned, it would most likely start in Europe. America would be safer. He never forgave himself for Lee’s death. The bullets that cut her brother down just as surely took out her father only not quite so cleanly.
The shock of Lee’s death devastated him mentally and physically and now he was riddled with arthritis and bitter recrimination. Her mother encouraged him to stay active and so, more in an attempt to get her off his back than an innate love of the sea, he applied for membership of the local yacht club. Ernest Hemmingway he was not and Ellie’s mother was under no illusion that the only water he was likely to go near was the dash he splashed in his scotch. His application was rejected out of hand. Unforgivably he had retained his British citizenship. Apparently the fact that his son had died fighting for the flag cut no ice with the blazers who sat on the committee. Regulations were regulations. Sentiment could not be allowed to breach the code.
Ellie wondered why she was thinking of those pompous, self righteous sons-of-bitches as she sat paralysed with terror in the car she had unwittingly parked in a frigging slaughter house. The kid had obviously broken the twisted rules of their exclusive fraternity. At least all her father got was a metaphoric slap in the face. Shadow Man was wiping the blade on his jacket. They stood over the boy like mourners at a graveside and Ellie prayed they could not hear the pounding of her heart. Then Shadow Man turned and strode towards the exit and the goons followed. She listened until she could no longer hear the slap of their sneakers before dropping her head against the steering wheel.
In his final moments as he reached out to her the boy had known that he was lost, understood that her desperation was as great as his. She had misunderstood, the boy was not pleading for his life he was offering her his own. Lee was looking at her now, gazing up from his muddied, bloodied resting place and at last she understood. The reproach she saw in his eyes was not because she had abandoned him it was because she had not taken up her life and lived it to the full, a life he would never have. She turned the key in the ignition and drove slowly towards the exit ramp not looking back.
The boy, like Lee, was beyond her reach now, lost inside his concrete tomb. She could not call him back but she could accept his gift, his sacrifice. The stone had been rolled away and Ellie drove out into the light.