Man in a Box

Jimmy lay face down in the scum and the sick, mess-caked fingers brushing the steel grate of the vent as if caressing the face of a dear lover. He wanted to inhale all of the deliriant gas that poured out of the duct. The last dose had been hours ago and his nerves were firing madly.

The buzzing of electronic interference grated against his ears, slowly rising to a hum. He tried to disperse it by shaking his head but the white noise continued to grow. Palming his ears, he sat up and stared at the wall of the cramped storage locker. The mounted television had come to life. There was a thick clot of human biology stuck on the screen’s surface, obscuring but not completely, the ever-changing field of static.

The blizzard of electricity shifted and Jimmy appeared on screen, as he was only a week ago. Sprawled on all fours, and spewing his guts in shuddering torrents. It was not real time; the howling and violent puking was behind him now. His skin didn’t hurt and the hairs weren’t standing on end any longer. With closed eyes, Jimmy tried to block out the wretched images of himself.

“Hard to watch isn’t it?” A bombastic, robotic voice, obviously filtered through a program, echoed off the tinny walls.

“Who are you?” Jimmy croaked.

“Someone with mutual interests.”

“Let me out.” Screaming until he was hoarse, Jimmy went berserk, flailing haphazardly.

“That’s exactly what I had in mind.” The struggle ceased. “If you’ll agree to do something for me, I will grant your freedom.”

“What do you want?”

“I’m a business man, see, and my business is taking things that aren’t mine. A high-risk high-reward enterprise, sure. One can’t get caught taking what isn’t his, or he won’t be able to enjoy what he got away with. I will open that door, and let you go free out into the world, no catches or snags. All you have to do is take something for me.”

Jimmy’s eyes lit up and he began cackling to himself, running a hand through his unkept, foul hair. Only one little thing and sweet, miserable, paradise could resume. The lightbulb, a hollow pen, a freight-train of apathy.

“Okay, what is it?”

“You know Saint Joseph’s, I assume?”

“I’m not lookin’ for handouts, but I know it.”

“You’re now a volunteer who has a passion for philanthropy and religion. Gain their trust. Access the office. Empty the safe, and leave. The code is 4425.”

“Why would I do that?”

“You want to escape so you can get back to your pathetic, chemically saturated life. You don’t want to die sober and alone in here, do you?”

Sober and alone? Hell no.

“Don’t even think of getting high. That was the point of this whole exercise. We clear that garbage out of you, so you can at least pretend to be functional. You’ll behave like a quality citizen, an example of moral fibre. I suggest you try not to be yourself.”

Silence overcame the prisoner and he looked at the pools of bile and stool on the ground.

“If you take anything naughty, I’ll know. You’ll wake up back in there.”

“What about after?”

“After you get my money, pursue your more – base – interests, by all means. Once you have it, I’ll be in touch.”

The television clicked off, and the safe winked away. There was a click, and a dull thunk, then yellow light poured in from the opening doors. The flood of searing white rays penetrated his skull through the eyes, and he fell to his knees, hiding from the blinding pain behind raised hands. Slowly, the scorching glow lessened, and the hands lowered.

Crawling on elbow and knee, he dragged himself out of the container and onto the concrete floor of the storage facility. From above, fluorescent lights coated everything in a green-white film. The walls were mostly concrete, chipped here and there, and the space held only two other lockers. There was no one else around, whoever had opened the door vanished during that period of blindness.

Standing in spurts, stiff limbs despondent, Jimmy felt as if he had been folded and was only now unfurling. The cement outside of his container had been spray painted with the stencilled numbers: “4425”.

“Four-four-two-five. Four-four-two-five.” Jimmy found an elevator at the end of the hallway, and clicked the car request button. Out of the basement and into the fire.

The elevator opened up at street level and Jimmy took in his surroundings. Across the street, a skeleton-thin girl wearing a scrap of a shirt shook her hips slowly and sensually next to a stop sign. Gap-dashed smiles in unison with smouldering eyes were directed at men who worked in groups to load skids into big, dent-pocked vans.

This was Cordova street, east side, and was well-trodden ground for any man who wanted a bit of nasty fun. A few blocks down Water street and Jimmy was fast approaching Main and Hastings, streets lined with window-barred convenience and drug stores that were attended by the unwanted masses in droves on the sidewalk outside.

A familiar voice grated against Jimmy’s ears and he tried to hide his face, but Carlos, a hulking man with a waterfall belly and a propensity for crumpled ball caps, wouldn’t be deterred.

“Hey.” Carlos sped up to keep pace as Jimmy tried to walk by. “I thought you were dead.” Carlos took in the sediments of filth that coated his acquaintance. “Oh damn. You look like shit man.”

St. Josephs stuck out down the road, on the corner of Main and Howe, not only because of the crumbling faux-gothic spires but the massive throng of scowling smoke and stink that milled about outside its steps.

Carlos’ voice lowered to a whisper, as if he were confiding something important. “I got the good, good China White, Jimmy, just your stuff. I’ll let it go for, say, sixty bucks.” Carlos’ eyes darted over too quick, too eager at the money talks. It was something he’d done a thousand times but Jimmy had never noticed. The devil’s in the details.

Planting his feet, Jimmy formed a mace of knuckles and fingers, and brought a storm down on Carlos. Crumpling as if his legs were made of paper, Carlos hit the ground, face a bloody ruin.

Barely five seconds had passed since the first blow had fallen, and an unbroken stride had taken Jimmy away from that battered body and a few steps closer to freedom.

The first course of action was to shower and find some clothes. Once he looked real respectable, he’d kiss up to these god-worshipping retards and rob them blind. Then he’d get some smack and forget his name.

*** *** ***

Dead-eyed hungry people swept in a line through the crowded eating area, a large room tightly packed with tables and stools, and out onto the street. Everyone and their uncle’s brother’s cousin wanted a little home-cooked grub.

Blowing tentatively on her soup, Donna forced it down one spoonful at a time. The appetite just wasn’t there, but she knew that was the coke, and her body would thank her in the long run. Scalding hot, the bowl of tomato-barley was raising her temperature, so she took off her jacket and sat on it.

A few eyes lingered on her revealing vest and marred skin, but she just ignored them and dipped her half-a-bun into the bowl. A hand on her leg made her twist sharply, soup spilling onto her lap.

A face that looked as if someone had plugged an empty mouth, squashed-potato nose and yellow eyes onto a wrinkled thumb licked his lips while looking at her. A tapeworm. His bowl was empty, she noticed. They won’t even let a girl eat, before it’s back to the sex.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to eat.”

“You can have some sausage. Extra-large.”

A few of the men chuckled, but the women rolled their eyes and gave tapeworm the stink eye.

“Screw off.” Forcibly pushing his hand away, Donna turned back to her bowl.

“Screw on, babe.” Tapeworm’s body pressed against her, straddling the bench, he half chortled-half panted on her.

Surveying the room and smiling brightly, Lionel Barrymore stopped when he saw tapeworm’s posture. A few quick strides, his black robe flowing behind him like a cape, and Lionel stopped right behind them.

“What’s going on here Donna? Frankie?” Lionel’s eyes remained on Frankie, his hand tucked into his robes.

Without looking up, Donna sighed. “He won’t leave me alone.”

Frankie began smiling widely and nodding, eyes full of lust.

“This is a good place, a clean place. You come here to eat, that’s all, leave everything else outside those doors. That’s our rule.”

“Oh yeah churchie? Is that what God tells ya?” Frankie said, as he pulled a knife from his shoe, it’s blade rusty and brown. The blade was then pressed against Donna’s cheek, causing her to breath deeply and slowly while closely looking at the weapon. “I see things a lot different.”

“Oh, you don’t know who I am.”

Frankie’s eyes flickered away from Donna for the first time and hovered on Lionel before darting back to her. A middle-aged man, trim and severe in his disposition, with a receding hairline and a scar on his lip. “Nah, why should I?”

The lunch room had fallen silent as even spoons stilled. There was no sound other than the thick breathing of the to-be rapist and the to-be raped.

“You’ve heard about the shootings over the last couple months?”

“There’s a lot of shootings.” Frankie held Donna in a head lock and was chewing on her hair while smiling wickedly at Lionel.

“Not like these. It was the hard dealers, the mean pimps, the parasites that live and feed off the streets out there. Someone gunned em’ down where they sleep. Police asked who was responsible, why this happened? Was it a deal gone bad? A syndicate war? Then they find out from some of the witnesses that it was a man with a hand on his face. A man who wore a hand as a mask.”

Frankie’s smile vanished and he stood up, pushing Donna to the floor. “That’s right. I heard about that. Dressed like a priest.

“I heard that he was dressed like a priest as well. Strange isn’t it? Not too many churches around here.”

Frankie slowly backed away, knife wavering in his hand, as he wiped his brow. “Okay, I’ll leave your room alone, alright?”

“See that you do and God bless.” Frankie was out the door without a moment’s hesitation. “Well, the show’s over folks, best get to eating, there’s lots of hungry mouths outside.” The chorus of clattering and mumbled conversation picked back up.

“It would seem there’s more to you than meets the eye.” Lionel turned and found a tall, smiling man with tired eyes, dressed in a pair of old jeans and a pull-over sweater, long hair hanging loosely just above his shoulders.

“Hardly. That kind of encounter happens daily here. It comes with the territory.”

The young man offered his hand with a tight smile. “The name’s Jimmy. Jimmy Stewart.”

“Just like the actor.”

“My dad was a fan.”

“What can I do for you Jimmy?”

“Well, I find myself rich in many ways; the love of god, the joy of living, the freedom of choice. Wealth should be shared and I would love to commit myself to your cause, to help those in need. I can’t imagine anything would be more fulfilling.”

Lionel let the proposal hang in the air as he brought a curled finger to his chin and studied Jimmy.

“You have a goodness to you Jimmy, I can sense it, a purity. At the same time, I sense trouble in you. That said, if you’re willing to put in some hard work, we need the help. Not many folks willing to thrust their arms into the filth these days. There’s still another two hours before we shut down, why don’t you start by helping in the kitchens?”

“Thank you.” Jimmy turned to enter the back. He stopped halfway and turned back to Lionel. “About what you said to that guy, are you actually the Hand?“

A rich laugh escaped Lionel’s lips and he shook with amusement. “No, I’m not a murderer. You’ll learn that some problems are more dangerous than others. My job is to protect my flock and a little white lie is always better than violence, in the eyes of God.”

Jimmy nodded with a grin, and entered the kitchen through the steam-licked double doors at the edge of the room.

*** *** ***

A small cot had been prepared in an upstairs closet and that was where Jimmy nested for the night. Dish duty in St. Joseph’s kitchen had earned that, at least, in Lionel’s eyes.

The sleep didn’t come easily the past few days, maybe it was the heroin, Jimmy didn’t know, he wasn’t a doctor and he wasn’t the type to pretend. Regardless, being clean sucked. It was becoming harder with each passing day and prayer to keep his face on straight. His smile kept threatening to slip into a snarl, whether from the brisk, invasive women who carelessly threw dirty pots at him, or the chemical mess in his brain, fighting desperately to right itself.

There was a clang, followed by the slow whine of a decrepit metal door being opened. Sitting up, Jimmy looked out the window; the sun was gone thank God, the rays were like cattle prods against his eye sockets more often than not, and gave him the worst variety of headaches – long and excruciating.

In the street below was an obscured figure, standing a few feet from the door, shadows flickering around his feet. Jimmy realized that the shifting darkness was actually the figure’s clothing. A robe of some sort.

Jimmy pulled himself closer to the window, and slowly undid the latch. The window wouldn’t budge easily but finally burst open when pushed hard with both hands. With the dusty window out of the way, he could see the man more clearly.

About six foot tall, and wearing a black priest’s robe, Jimmy recognized him, from the robe and the height. There was no doubt it was Lionel Barrymore.

Lionel turned slowly and faced the building, hands busy with a mysterious rod. Breath was torn from his chest as Jimmy took in a hand clutching the man’s face. There were gaps in the fingers for eyes, and a hollow grate for the mouth.

A crack broke through the night as Lionel’s hand moved sharply down the road, he had been loading a shotgun. That horrifying face turned slowly up and Jimmy hid beneath the window, but not before he saw the man’s eyes – bulging orbs that penetrated deep and mercilessly.

Heart pounding in his chest, Jimmy raised a single eye above the sill, to look below again, praying the street was now empty. Lionel was still there, staring into the window, unmoving. “Shit.” Jimmy fell back down, mind reeling. Well, that was it.

Jimmy rose and pulled on his jeans, as well as his faded, button-up shirt. There was something nice to be said about cleverly infiltrating, taking everything and disappearing from the mind like a drunken conversation, but this was too freaking far. Those eyes had scared him far more than anything he had ever seen.

The door to the closet opened with an obnoxious whine that would have been better avoided, but there was no helping it now. Lionel was on the street below, far away. Jimmy calmed himself by remembering that Lionel was a public figure, a champion of goodwill and he wouldn’t sacrifice all that to kill just one volunteer. But maybe the man thought his reputation was in jeopardy and would kill to protect it.

Taking the stairs two at a time, and sprinting through a back hallway, Jimmy found himself in front of the office he’d staked out many times in the past few days. The back room was full of the overflowing litter that regularly circulated in and out of St. Josephs – abandoned, misused toys, garbage bags full of ratty clothing, mountains of tattered books.

He’d been careful not to be seen, but whenever the opportunity had arisen, he’d used the bathroom nearby, just to get a look. It’d been impossible not to try the office; a solid wood door with a double lock, but it’d always been shut up tight.

Glancing around, Jimmy started wading through the piles of goodwill donations, looking for something that might be used to break the door down. There was nothing worthwhile, and panic started to set in.

Out of desperation, more than anything, he kicked the door hard, right next to the lock. Instead of the expected jarring of his leg and knee, the door swung violently open, crashed against the office wall, swung back, and almost closed before Jimmy grabbed it. The handle moved under his hand, it hadn’t even been locked.

Shaking his head, Jimmy stepped inside and saw the safe behind Lionel’s desk, a small black lockbox. Lionel’s office was a chaotic sprawl of papers, pictures and documents, layered on parts of the floor, his desk, even on the chairs.

The safe’s code was entered digitally. Four-four-two-five. Those numbers would never leave Jimmy’s mind, he suspected. With a beep, a square lock indicator blinked and then went solid green. Pulling the door open, Jimmy raised an eyebrow.

There was maybe one-hundred and fifty dollars in small bills and change inside the safe. All of this was piled together and dropped into his pockets. The safe was closed with a click and Jimmy ran from St. Joseph’s, the memory of Lionel’s drill-like stare providing fuel for his flight.

*** *** ***

It’d been a week since that night at St. Josephs, and Jimmy had never felt better. In some ways, that bizarre kidnapping had been a blessing. At one point, Jimmy stood on a knife edge where each side held a different fate; get high, or don’t. Though he’d teetered, and pinwheeled, he’d fallen into not getting high.

The withdrawal got better every day, the all-encompassing pain of existing without heroin was in the past. It started to become as simple as finding work, and the joy that came from sweating for food. Every bead broken from his brow detoxified and healed.

The streets still provided his only home, but it was amazing how different they were when you had full faculty of your senses. Instead of waking up in a pile of human sick, under the feet and eyes of strangers, Jimmy slept at the beach. Every night, he took the time to dig a hole, each hand a shovel. The sand was piled around his hole, his bed, so it could be easily dragged back on top, providing warmth and cover.

It was well known amongst the street dwellers that beaches weren’t a good place to sleep because they were windy, and if you got caught, they’d kick you awake and make you hit the road. No one ever thought that if you buried yourself, the community rangers wouldn’t see you in the half-light, and the wind couldn’t touch what was beneath ground.

The west side of the city was alive, vibrant and healthy; a stark contrast to the cold, tomb of East Hastings. The loving smiles of strangers were a refreshing shock. Work was found as easily as walking up to a job site, dirtied men flexing as they laboured, introducing himself and working harder than anyone else. The world can’t be controlled, but neither can a man.

Groaning loudly, Jimmy’s bus lurched and then stilled. “Thanks.” he called to the driver with a smile as he stepped onto the sidewalk and continued down King Edward.

The walk was accompanied by a metallic clink as the hundred-fifty in change and small bills bounced with every step. Jimmy’s mysterious captor hadn’t made contact but the story had been featured in every local paper as well as national outlets. The ‘tragedy’ of the crime against charity had sparked outrage, and a passionate flurry of donations to St. Josephs.

Lionel Barrymore had been made out in the news as the modern personification of a saint and he did nothing to dispel or corrupt that image. His quotes made St. Joseph’s sound like house for the goodness of mankind, and the theft an “atrocity.” No where did it mention that the theft was a measly hundred-fifty but Lionel put the losses somewhere closer to ten thousand.

Strangely, Lionel never mentioned him in the papers, or to the police. In print, he’d been quoted as saying he had no idea who was responsible. What was he playing at? Saving Jimmy for his own form of justice?

Turning up Maple street, memories began to surface from the murky pool of days past. Callie as he last remembered her, small enough to sit on his shoulders. Learning how to ride a bike, laughing and crying equally. His smile had been bright enough to rival the sun when she finally did it on her own, hair streaming, and bandaged knees pumping.

The last time he saw Callie was in two-thousand three, just before things had gotten really bad. That was ten years ago, now.

Jimmy stopped walking and sat on someone’s lawn cross-legged, covering his eyes. Thinking about them was so painful. Looking back now, Jimmy knew it was the pain of his own addiction that tore him away. You reach a point where your addiction overpowers your love, and the pain of that is so great, you delve deeper into the addiction. You pass the point of getting high for pleasure, and you get high to punish yourself.

It’d been a normal Tuesday night, he’d gone out to get groceries. Callie begged him to get cake mix, she wanted to bake a cake with mommy. Jimmy’d been clean five years then, he’d quit when his daughter’d been born. Cold turkey, no therapy or drugs, he’d just toughed it out for her.

The thing about addiction, though, is it never lets up the gas. It’s always trying to wreck you so your brains spatter all over the windshield. He’d been in the grocery store, filling the cart when he’d ran into an old buddy. They used to shoot up together and once they got to talking, they got to planning and after a few beers, the grocery money was buying them a bag of black tar for old times.

Jimmy’d woken up four days later, ashamed, confused and scared. Angry beyond belief at himself, at his old friend, and craving more. Once it started it was unstoppable, a snowball of destruction that consumed everything in it’s path.

Before he knew it, Lisa took Callie, and they’d moved. How could they be blamed for moving when a drug addict kept breaking in at four in the morning, followed by characters of dubious quality, always looking for a way to pay for the next hit.

The only way he’d ever communicated with Callie after that was on a pay phone, Lisa had told him to stay away, and that if he ever came by she’d call the cops. He’d listened.

What Jimmy dreaded more than the things he did remember, is the things he didn’t. Had he hit her? Tears poured down his cheeks, glistening in the sun and he felt it again, despite everything, he wanted heroin.

Bounding up, Jimmy walked more quickly now, wiping his tears away. He knew where they lived, it was just up the street. If there was anything he needed now, it was to see his baby girl all grown up. The one thing he’d made that hadn’t gone to hell.

A boy, no older than thirteen, wearing a shirt that hung pass his knees like a dress as well as low-riding jeans, stepped in his way on the sidewalk. “Yo, call for you.”

The boy gave Jimmy a cellphone, which he recognized as disposable from the simplicity. It was a burner. Apprehensively, he raised it to his ear. The boy turned heel and sprinted away, shirt billowing behind.

“Hello?”

The robotic voice from the storage locker spoke. “Jimmy, nice to speak to you again. You are more difficult to find than I expected. I hope you aren’t trying to get away with my money?”

Jimmy laughed into the phone. “It’s little more than change, not worth losing freedom over. Did you know that’s all that was in there?”

“You still have it? Good. Can you meet me? Where are you?”

Jimmy sighed, he wanted to see Callie so bad, but it could wait. He’d meet them after, totally clear and clean, a fresh start. “Sure. I’m on King Ed and Maple. Where should we meet?”

“How about Vintage Park, fifteen minutes?”

“Will do.”

The walk to Vintage Park was short, and once there, the most desirable thing was to find a bench so he could sit and wait. His captor was a strange man. It seemed unprofitable for him to put so much effort into taking Jimmy, detoxing him, and then tracking him down, when the only return he was getting was a hundred-fifty bucks.

As the midday warmth baked him, Jimmy closed his eyes and forced his captor from his mind. There was no doubt he’d never learn more about this man. It was all mystery. There’d probably be someone sent to pick up the money.

A small pinch in Jimmy’s neck made him jump and turn. An empty needle protruded from his skin, hanging loosely like a spare appendage. Behind the needle, looking down at him, was the Hand.

Jimmy tried to stand but dizziness overtook him, a rush of pure bliss and exhilaration, an endless supply of forget.

Kneeling, the Hand wrapped an arm around his shoulders and pulled the mask off. Lionel’s eyes were soft, compassionate. “You are a martyr, brother. St. Joseph’s will do great things in your name. We have the attention of the public and money in our name. Only sacrifice and loss gets the attention of the people, they pay no heed to goodness. Like Christ, you will die for their sins.”

A dam of pleasure broke inside Jimmy’s mind, and he felt sick to his stomach, the tell-tale sign of an opiate overload. Shaking, and white as paste, Jimmy’s eyes thinned to pin-points as Lionel cradled his head.

“I am sorry that it ends like this for you, friend, but you understand don’t you? It would do no good for the people to learn that the St. Joseph’s robbery was self-inflicted.”

Jimmy opened his mouth to speak, to form words, but apathy consumed everything, including his heart and he was still, face lax.

Lionel closed the dead man’s eyes and whispered a prayer, then stood and walked away through the sun, basking in the respectful glances from good folks enjoying a beautiful day.