Lingering humidty and old grease wafted over Gus Browne’s front step. Despite the smell, it was the only stray breeze that managed to bring momentary relief to his sweating skin. Gus found regular comfort there. Same time everyday, waving to the delivery men, laughing with his new neighbours about old forgotten dirty jokes, watching the kids try to open the fire hydrant.
A new smell intruded his senses, acrid and burning. Looking around, people shut windows and held their hands over their faces. Quickly moving to the safety of indoors. Gus stood, knees popping and the familiar twinge in his back almost grabbed his full attention. If it were not for the shadows.
He began to breathe shallow, trying to fight through the smell as shapes began to form at the end of the street. Gus couldn’t tell if it was the hot air coming off the pavement, or if the shadows really rippled. He forced his eyes away, but something caught his eye.
A man sized blur, green and yellow, with a staggering gait.
Several thoughts went through his mind. An ancient memory of his grandmother telling of the days so hot that ‘even the good lord couldn’t tell the difference between Earth and Hell’. And ‘those were days when men would go mad. Don’t look at someone the wrong way, they kill you as soon as smile at you. Days like that, the Devil go a walkin’.
Gus fumbled with the keys, feeling the tightness start up his arm, fingers not responding. The sound of the city going mad roaring at him, pushing him to move faster for the safety of his home.
Then Gus heard it, rushing beyond the sounds. He knew that sound like it was the familiar creaking and groaning of his own house. The shuffle scrape of shoes and the lilting singing of his friend. Clinton Plenty, an old Irishman, always wore the bright colored bowling jacket. And that shuffle, it couldn’t have been Plenty.
Plenty was dead. Seven years now.
Finally the lock slid open and despite the oppressive heat inside, Gus’s skin crawled with cold fear. He quickly shut the door, but felt a vibration through his aching joints of his hands and wrists. He pulled his hands away as if touching something too hot and stepped back.
“Gus. Are ye in there?”
An icy dagger shot up Gus’s left arm. His hands patted down his pockets for the pill bottle. Where was his nitro? In a panic, he quickly scanned the room. Not anywhere, spare bottle upstairs bathroom.
But the door was still unlocked.
He reached out gently trying not to make a sound, grabbing the deadlock chain. Crossing himself with the other hand, he gently slid the chain into place.
“Tis me. Plenty. An oh laird, I’ve got a terrible thirst.”
Gus stepped back away from the door, holding his breath. Stepping quietly back towards the staircase, he couldn’t keep his eyes off the door.
“There’s someone ‘ere ta see ye. C’mon fill yer boots already an’ let us in.”
The door banged on its frame three times in a row. Each hammering the tightness across his chest.
He could hear it now, the entire city going mad, the roaring. Traffic snarled and entangled. Gunfire stacatto didn’t stop the sound of desperate cries for help. Baritone voices breaking into falsetto terror.
Gus stumbled back against the stairs, his already short breath blown out as he felt the impact along his spine. From out of the corner of his eye, he could see the movement, two sets of legs from under the door.
“C’mon lad, aren’t ye glad to see me?”
A scent came to him again, aching and surprising. It was her. Light vanilla floral and her scent. His Alice. From within the house, up the stairs. Where his pills were.
“She’s no fun Gus. Ne’ermind her. Le’s get a proper pint.”
Gus found the strength to climb up the stairs, ignoring the fresh pain in his back. He pushed and felt his chest fill with pain. Her scent drawing him closer. The world went dark for a moment, and his legs almost buckled.
“Pills.” He said to himself and then slowly started up the stairs. The tightness across his chest lessening a little. “God help me.”
Top of the stairs, creaky floorboard. Alice’s voice asking him, when would he get it fixed. This time her tone was soft in memory, it kept him going.
Medicine cabinet, once again fumbling with too stiff fingers. The bottle clattering across the sink and into the large clawfoot tub. He turned too quickly, hands grasping mid air, foot slipping. The edge of the tub came up too quickly. Pain again in his chest. Different, sharper as he felt one of his ribs go in a muffled crack.
Gus pulled himself into the tub, grateful for the coolness. Breath coming short and shallow now. His vision darkening. The lid came off, and the few pills were shakily tossed under his tongue. He closed his eyes and tried not to think, just letting the medicine relieve his aching heart. Just need some time. Hand reached out for the large towel on the rod, pulling it down he wrapped it around his head, over his eyes and ears.
“Nicely done lad. Dinna worry ’bout me, I kin wait. Fer as long as it takes.”
Gus moaned at the voice that seemed to have crept up the stairs into the bathroom. He felt hot fresh tears on his cheeks as the lilting voice of his long dead friend began to sing. The rational part of his mind told him that he needed rest and to go to the hospital. But it was the fear that kept him there.