The Modest Proposal

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Weird City Saint
By Gabriel Ricard

Vince worried about his friend and waited for the worst. Being that compassionate and alert all the time was exhausting. He was learning more and more over the last few weeks that he just wasn't cut out for what most people would consider true and steady acts of friendship. The truth was he loved Shane like two lesser brothers who were at their best when they got together on Friday night. They had twenty years up and down the bizarre streets, not to mention the ordinary, painfully dull ones. Vince would always be grateful to Shane for sticking around when that divorce from five years back took an ugly and decidedly sharp turn into concrete hell. On the other end of that he imagined Shane appreciated having an old friend for those lost weekends when the drugs were a little better at thinking for themselves than usual.

It was a lot of one guy bailing out the other. It might have just been his mind playing tricks, but he was pretty sure all of that combined had been a lot easier than what he had to do now. He wanted to keep by his friend, be around for the moment when the clouds parted. He just didn't know when that might be. Maybe that was the problem. The part of Shane's behavior that was scaring him the most.

"We're almost there," Shane said. "You'll know the place." His tone was quiet but manic enough to go loud. Coming from him, this was a dangerous, unpredictable kind of volatile.

The weather was what that drunk lunatic on Channel 7 referred to as a cold snap. If that was true then it was a snap of a bone thicker than a tree that had seen a thousand years of reckless behavior on the part of the people it watched over. It felt as though winter had shown up around the end of September and was planning to vacation until further notice. Everything was stalling. The light at the end of the tunnel was both in front of him and behind him as well. Running in either direction was like running barefoot on a gravel treadmill.

At least Shane walked like a rational human being. His eyes, the way he had been taking in the world, gave that away as something almost menacing, but at least he didn't have some kind of madman stagger working for him. That might have been too much to take. There were hundreds of people around them. He noticed a fire breaking in one of the four-story pharmacies across the street, but no one except the poor bastard inside seemed to be worried. The pharmacist ducked out into the street and turned to watch his job go down swinging. He didn't make even a halfhearted effort to get someone to help him. He didn't go for a cell phone.

"I can't believe it's taken this long to get you to come along," Shane said. "I was starting to think you just didn't believe me."

Of course he didn't. Just humoring him felt like a stupid waste of time. He felt guilty for feeling that way and even worse for not being able to shake it in the name of being a good friend. "Well I guess anything's possible," he said. "I've just been busy is all." That wasn't entirely a lie.

Shane was even moving according to the flow of human traffic. He put his hand on an old man's arm to keep from crashing right into him. "Everyone's busy," he argued. "That's a lousy excuse."

They weren't too far from the subway stop Shane had been going on about. At this time of the day it just took forever to get there. "Well I want to get the novel finished before the end of the February," he said. "You know I've been working on that damn thing for over a year now."

"You still find time to go out," he said. "It's not like your social life went in for repairs."

He sighed. This was one of the most infuriating things about Shane's sudden change. Since his impossible encounter he had become devout in the most disconcerting way possible. He wasn't hanging around street corners with a sign stapled to his chest about how everyone was in the middle of the worst of the end times. "Come on, man," he said. It wasn't that dramatic. Those guys were crazy from day one. Shane's fervor was gentle and a lot harder to ignore. "Can you cut me a break for even 1/100th of a second?" He laughed to keep from sounding as severe as he was starting to feel.

"It's okay," he said. "I get that you think I'm crazy. That's not a huge mystery or anything."

"I'm here aren't I? I'm going on this insane scavenger hunt right?"

"Reluctantly, yes."

"Will you at least grant me that this might be a little on the weird side?"

His attention was fixed on the sky. There had been rumbles of thunder all day, but at least three days had managed to squeak by without snowfall. He was focused on something past the thunder or maybe all around it. "You act like I'm a junky for wild goose chases."

Christmas music was annoying in late-January. It was coming from one of the cars that would be stuck in rush hour traffic for the rest of the week. "No," he said. "Just speedballs and mushrooms."

Shane glared but laughed anyway. "That's not funny," he said.

"Is too."

His eyes flashed another wave of excitement. "Look," he said. "Either you believe me or you don't." No longer looking at the sky the fanaticism keeping up a slow burn just under the surface. They pounded the concrete steps that led down into the Blair St. subway station. "I just hope you feel it."

Sometimes Shane could be quite lucid. The same person he had always been. That only made it worse. His intensity went into overdrive whenever the subject of his recent experience came up. That experience couldn't help but come up anywhere from six to ten thousand times a day.

He needed more friends. That was one of the more serious errors in judgment he had made over the years. His social circle consisted of Shane, some of the guys from the bar, occasional girlfriends and not much else. In retrospect, it wouldn't have hurt to join a few of those clubs in college. Maybe pay more attention to whatever people were using on the internet. Meeting people now was just a big pain in the ass. Just getting an idea of whether or not they were worth the trouble took a lifetime. By then it would become obvious that it would have been smarter to just stay home in the first place.

Until recently, the situation had been fine. Shane was more than enough of a close friend. The guys at the bar provided some variety in conversation. He was even certain that sometime soon he'd finally get sick enough of dating to marry. The other two things had gone unchanged, but for some reason they were all connected. Together they created a linear routine that wasn't great, yet wasn't terrible. He had never really thought about it.

Now that he was forced to think about it all the time, he couldn't believe it was all so fragile. It takes a true giant of self-absorption to go years without even noticing something like that.

It was taking forever to get down those concrete stairs. The design was supposed to be such that there would be space enough for the people going down and the people going up. Nobody really had the time or patience to pay attention to design. So it was just a big clusterfuck. It was no different than the rest of the city. It was a little easier to get around at the bottom, but Vince still had to go out of his way to keep up with Shane. His starting to walk and then stopping all of a sudden didn't help at all.

This wasn't the busiest time of day, but it was still congested, and was a task just to stay focused. He was relieved when Shane leaned up against a wall and got them out of the human traffic.

"Sorry," he said. "I'm just trying to figure this out as best I can."

That was such a strange thing to hear out of him that it was almost funny. "Don't worry about it," he said, already sick to death of this place and his instant retreat to claustrophobia. "This is your thing, and we're here, so we'll do whatever you think we ought to do." He was hoping this would end badly. Of course it was going to end without incident, but somehow he wanted that to be something greater. He didn't want this to destroy Shane. But it could be something to swing him a little closer back to reality. What that might be was still a complete unknown. Most likely Shane would just stay the same.

People didn't come back from stuff like this. They just slipped slowly and felt wonderful the whole ride down. It was kind of unfair to be honest.

"It wasn't this busy before," he said. He walked a little ways while keeping his back near to the wall. "Just give me a minute."

"It's fine." He followed, craving a cigarette, and kept watch for somebody he hadn't seen in years. It was often the only way to be distracted. There had been a time when Shane was the fearless one when it came to the little, stupid things. "Have you been here since, you know, the thing?"

Shane gave him a little glare for referring to it like that. "No," he said. "I've been talking to this guy from that church on Blue Street about it. I didn't want to come back until I could get you to come with me."

He didn't know the church Shane was talking about. Blue Street was a ways from their place. It was in a part of town that was dicey on a good morning. "Do you remember where it happened?" He felt like an idiot for using any form of language that implied he too was taking it seriously. But they were here, and he wanted to move things along. Anything would do if it meant getting back to fighting their way up the steps and into the slightly clean air. "That might help."

"Well yeah," he said. "I'm aware of that." His voice was sharp and annoyed at everything that was conspiring to work against him. "I thought I told you where it happened."

As a matter of fact he had told the story several times. "The escalator right?"

He nodded and pointed towards the escalator that went down to some of the trains. "It hit me so hard that I almost fell the whole way back down." Saying that, and remembering it as though it was as simple as bringing up a video on his phone, made him laugh a little. "It was like having a heart attack. In fact that's exactly what I thought it was at first. It felt like an arm, a presence had brushed past me, and then it felt like everything was crashing inside of itself."

They moved a little closer to the escalators. "I remember you telling me that," he said. Announcements poured down from the rocky heavens. Dozens of strangers dictated one-person shows with their phones. Some of them didn't have phones. A few were begging for money, and one guy at the other end of the walkway was playing guitar. At least, Vince thought he was playing guitar. Who could hear the song amidst this racket?

"Thirty isn't exactly impossible for that kind of thing."

"Nope." There was in fact a certain kind of energy to this place. He had always believed in at least the old metaphor of walls talking, of a room having more to say than the person who just moved in. That was as specific as he had ever wanted to get.

"Especially the way we used to stay up," he said, staring at the escalators and walking slowly towards them. "I thought my heart was finally paying me back in spades." He laughed at that. That little gesture had changed, too. "For a few seconds it was just this brutal, horrible kind of pressure right in the middle of my chest."

To his credit this story had not changed a single word since the first time he had told it. It was a small relief. He couldn't remember the rule of thumb for the seriously delusional and their trains of thought. Was it good or bad when their tune remained the same? "And I guess it couldn't have been a panic attack."

That got another glare from Shane. "I think I know when I'm having a panic attack," he said.

"Sorry."

He was walking towards the escalator more quickly now. Telling the story aloud yet again was making him move faster. "I looked behind me, I was looking all over the place, trying to figure out what the hell had just happened."

Somebody had probably just stuck him with a taser or something. A theory like that didn't have a trace of science fiction behind it. There were all kinds of weirdos and endlessly bored lunatics hanging around the subway station. They hung around the grocery stores, restaurants, churches, apartments, madhouses and just about every other locale within walking, driving or dreaming distance. He couldn't even begin to imagine what would happen in Shane's mind to make him think it could be anything else.

"Then you saw that guy right?" I'm just going on what you told me."

He made sure not to sound sarcastic or as though any of this was making him more miserable by the second.

"Yeah," he said. He had stopped again and was still keeping things off to the side while staring at the people coming off and starting to go down the escalator. "There was just those couple of seconds where he actually glanced back at me. I don't know how I was able to focus on him. There were people everywhere, and he was right at the top."

Again they were moving. It was almost like they were trying to sneak up the escalator itself. "So I guess we keep an eye out for him then?"

Shane glanced back at him again, but he didn't glare this time. He just looked helpless. As though the straws he was grasping at removed pieces of his skin off as they slid away. "I don't know,," he said, looking around as he walked closer while also trying not to crash into anybody. "Somehow I don't think he makes a habit of just showing up at the subway station."

"I guess angels have better things to do."

This time he didn't turn around. He was attempting to absorb (with his eyes) every aspect of the moving crowd. "I don't need that, Vince," he snapped. "It's fine if you have a hard time believing me, but I don't need that either."

"Sorry."

"It was a couple things," he said. "It was his eyes in those couple of seconds. You could fly right into them at about six million miles per hour and see everything going on in the world." Every word was a struggle. His attention wanted to be elsewhere. It wanted the reality and not just a bunch of stupid words describing the reality. "Years existed in the way he just looked at me the way a million people look at a million other people a million times a day." He was both listening intently and looking around everywhere. "Those years seemed to go in both directions at the same time."

The story remained right on track. Only now there were more details surrounding the facts as Shane clung to them. If this were any other set of circumstances, he would have just thought Shane was simply trying to enhance the hell out of his story. "Sounds intense," was the only useless phrase that came to mind.

He stopped them once again. Now they were just a few feet shy of being able to get on the escalator. "The rest of him looked just as weird," he said. "That was the other thing. It was like..." The explanation trailed off a little. "It was like some old Technicolor figure had snuck right into a high-definition epic. You could look at him and tell, you knew he just didn't belong there."

Vince really didn't want to go down the escalator. "He didn't say anything, huh?"

Shane was waiting for that figure to walk by and brush past him again. For a second he didn't do anything but wait for that feeling. Then he shook his head. "No, but I knew then, as I pulled myself together as best I could, that he had brushed past me without meaning to."

At the moment it didn't look like Shane was going to go anywhere else. His shoulders had slumped a little. His feet kept pretending they were about to take half a step forward. "So what makes you think it was some kind of angel? You've never really explained that to me." That was true enough. Up until now he had been somewhere in the endless middle of his enthusiasm.

He shrugged. "I don't know. My mind just put it all together. It was like something had snuck up behind me and dropped in a program to get make these..." The words trailed off again. "I don't know, man," he said, almost shouting. No one cared to pay any attention. "I don't know where this came from. All I know is that I was just completely numb for like an hour." He walked towards him and then turned back. "I don't even really remember leaving the subway station. I just woke up sitting on a bench at that park on Harris."

What he wanted to do now was put a hand on his friend's arm. Anything would be better than standing like a dupe. This was worse than bearing witness to nothing. It was definitely worse than Shane finally having a revelation of sanity. He couldn't even think of something that wouldn't sound mocking, selfish or just basically insincere. "Yeah."

Unexpectedly, Shane walked right past him. He wasn't looking around the same way anymore. "I don't know how I got to this," he said. "It just popped into my head and made perfect sense."

Rush hour was starting. Two people bumped into Shane as he started slowly back towards the stairs. Both just continued on without so much as a glance. Vince touched his right jeans pocket. His cigarettes were in there. The lighter was packed in there, too. "We can stay," he lied. "However long you want, man."

Shane kept moving towards the steps and didn't say anything. Even from the back he looked like a man who was going as far into his head as possible. Historically people didn't make it back home if they went that far.

So he gave up. He promised to try Shane again later. It was stupid to hope that he might feel better with a little time, but he went ahead and latched on anyway. He patted the pocket with the cigarettes again and followed in complete silence. The rush hour was in full swing, it came just like that, so it took about twice as long just to get to the first stone step. He noticed a beautiful young girl shaking her head and crying underneath a pair of sunglasses that were much older than her. Two kids of no more than ten rushed forward, almost knocking him and others over. An old man struggled up ahead. The cold air outside was still just a possibility, and a hint of what covered every single corner of the streets above. It was early afternoon, and he had no idea what could be done with the rest of the day. Hopefully there was something on that movie channel. He didn't know what Shane was going to do, but Vince suspected he would try to get his friend involved. There was a bottle of vodka. More than enough left.

At first, Vince felt something very physical work its way past his shoulder. It was like a few million volts attached to a sword. He opened his mouth, but could only choke a little. The feeling went from that first terrible jolt of surprise, to a complete shutdown brought on by his allergies. In a couple of seconds it felt like jumping from a heart attack to a heart attack. His legs crumbled, but his hand clamped down of the railing.

His breathing came back all at once. It felt like decades since his last breath. His eyes couldn't focus, so it simply swirled around without a thought for control. He saw Shane almost at the top of the steps. He had managed to avoid noticing him. His figure was just one of an unremarkable army that consisted of many. Right next to him was a figure that walked so slowly that he should have been overwhelmed by the onslaught of everyone trying to move a little faster. Somehow he did just fine. Nothing tried to rush him along.

Vince gasped and reached out. If anyone even cared that he had fallen over, they had too much on their plate to worry about showing it. He looked up again and caught that figure just as he was getting into the open air. Something about him didn't fit with the color and rhythm of the rest of the world.

Something about this struck him as being familiar. He gasped for a regular breathing pattern and watched Shane, who crossed the last step and disappeared into the afternoon light. He felt nothing below his waist.

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