It had been raining for nearly two days in the dull and ordinary town of Greenleaf, Ohio. Although not constant, it was an irritating rain that fell in unpredictable cycles; peaceful drips would pepper the ground before crashing daggers whooshed down stinging the skin on contact.
William Lodmoore’s boots sank into the collapsing earth in front of his beloved wife’s grave and as he knelt down beneath a radiant harvest moon, he placed seven lilacs beside her tomb, one for each year since she’d been gone. He closed his eyes, letting the rain wash over his face, and treaded the decadent gardens of the cemetery. Withering roses wrapped the vertical bars of the surrounding gates, weeping and slumping from their vines, a bitter prologue to the coming autumn. The graveyard’s ambiance was surprisingly quiescent–for although the area was cloaked in death, everything inside these pointed, spired gates was without time. For William, the past existed here constantly and without interruption, if only in his vaguely recollected reminiscences of times long past but hardly forgotten. But for him, it was enough.
The rain dissipated instantaneously as he exited the cemetery and from there, he headed east on Sparrow Street which–from the moment he encountered it–he found unusually dark, even for the late hour; it was somehow lonelier–even the trees that lined the glistening mica road were fewer in number. The streetlights fizzed and hummed, baking in their florescent tombs. Shredded remnants of newspaper and soiled Styrofoam cups flipped and rolled along the shimmery road, the premature wintry wind summoning the articles to unknown destinations. William forced one foot in front of the other, a movement usually motivated by natural and subconscious neuroses, but today demanded his uttermost thought. At thirty-seven years old he was already an old man–his rotting age apparent in his face–the creased lines of unrelenting stress etched in his forehead, the protrusive, slate-gray splotches that ran circles around his eyes; each blemish and discoloration was a geriatric impression of a rushed youth. He sauntered down the deserted sidewalk, his hands hidden in the pockets of his black, wrinkled slacks. The heels of his leather boots smacked against the uneven pavement and in the motion of his stride, his limbs felt loose and unattached to his body.
He crossed a faded pedestrian walkway and trudged north on Franklin Avenue–the opposite of the route home–and stared vacantly into the dark windows of closed shops in the empty business district. By the time he approached the end of the block, his eyes strained and swelled with tears, the derivatives of melancholy memories. Exhausted from his anguish, he rested his head on the edge of Milton’s Bakery, his cheek combing the coarse, cold brick. On the cobblestone down the alley beside the bakery, William noticed the figure of a woman lying supine and looming in a crisp halo of moonlight. After a brief moment of intended hesitation he crept toward the figure. His feet shuffled the soggy leaves that lay drenched on the brick road beneath him; he despised the rhythm of the soppy leaves as his ears absorbed the sound.
The alley showed little evidence of color. Black and gray consumed the narrow drive although hints of red from the brick of the ground and the walls all around offered a subtle contrast. In addition, a stark blueness cut through the gloom–a slight light presented from the moon–which illuminated the battered body below. White steam flowed and billowed out of sewer caps and surrounded the figure and to some extent, clouded William’s view of her. A number of black silhouettes were painted across and through the alley–shadowed projections of rails and beams of the fire escapes, of large blocks of black from dumpsters and trash cans. The smoke and shadows cowered over her like hungry ghosts, watching and waiting to feast upon her flesh and taste the sweetness of death. It was through these enigmatic spirits that he espied her breasts and stomach rippling and pumping, her lungs straining to catch those few deep, gasping breaths of life. The night was cold and forbidding And William’s own breaths expelled large, opaque clouds into the air. He could tell her breathing was impaired for only small, sporadic clouds escaped her.
He stood silently and stared at the irony of beauty, her pale complexion compromised by smudges of mud and rain and by the translucent moonlight that glittered upon her moist skin–twinkling as if a thousand stars had landed there–as if an angel had fallen from the sky. He realized he’d need to proceed toward the creature, for surely no angel would have fallen there looking so bruised and wasted.
And so he did. Slowly he approached the unfortunate girl and with each step he continued to collect the entirety of her image. He beheld that her clothes were torn and tattered and through the slashes he scrutinized the multiple cuts and abrasions that followed the course of her body like points on a road map. He knelt down beside her and lifted her left arm, which was draped over her hip, and inspected for any major injuries, but saw no indication of protruding bones or excessively marred flesh. He returned her arm to her hip and gently placed his hands on her cheeks, using his thumbs to open her eyes, but he could only see the whites of them.
God, she looked helpless. So fragile. So weak. Her jaw hung open, evidently languished by her attempt to swallow bits of oxygen. Her lips were chapped and flakes of dead skin clung to them still. Her nose was tinted in rose and clots of caked mucous were dried beneath her nostrils. William let go of her reddened cheeks and covered his mouth with his hand as he released a deep sigh of disbelief. He felt his lungs tremble as the air was released.
“Can you hear me?” he asked. Her eyes rolled into view and she moaned lightly. “Can you tell me what happened?” He waited for a response. She closed her eyes. “Is it very painful anywhere?” he insisted.
Then he heard the soft quiver of her voice. “My stomach,” she whispered to him, “it hurts.”
“We need to get you to a hospital and get–”
“No hospital,” she interjected.
That reply must have cost all her strength as well as her courage, but William hadn’t anticipated that response and knew not how to reply appropriately. Instead he put his hand on her belly and pressed in lightly. The texture and tension of her abdomen felt tender as if it was swollen or inflamed. “Are you sure?” he asked, forcing the issue. “You may be hurt very badly.”
She clawed at the sleeve of his coat, but she was so weak that William hardly noticed the sensation. “Please,” she pleaded and became breathless in the same moment, “I can’t.”
He sensed he couldn’t argue with her; she was dour and expressed much in that laconic phrase–Please, I can’t. The words echoed through his head and he felt her desperation rush over him. He believed her, perhaps because he thought she was too weak and frail to lie. He resolved to take her home with him and immediately acknowledged that the idea excited him. Like a quixotic romance novel, he was the bare-chested protagonist saving the damsel from the danger of a sanguinary battlefield. Death was astute, however, and lurked in the shadows that surrounded her and he soon realized that there was nothing romantic about the situation at all. There was no battlefield and he was certainly no hero. If she couldn’t escape the diligence of death he could sure help her try to elude it.