… Cold. So cold. I can’t feel my hands. They’re a couple of twitching lumps of meat at the end of my arms, uncaring about my needs or desires. I push them closer to the fire sputtering in a rusted oil drum, but the heat is as unconcerned about me as my hands are.
Across from me, the man with the long, diamond-shaped scar covering his cheek smiles, his teeth as black and broken as the ancient blacktop around us. “It’s cold tonight,” he says. I nod and look away to avoid gagging on breath that smells like cigarettes stubbed out in used cat litter. The lumps twitch toward the illusion of warmth again.
“Name’s Claude,” he says. “You’re new.”
I nod again, still looking out into the empty street near the alley. It’s bad enough that I lost everything – my job, my home, my family. But now I’m going to be trapped in this alleyway, snow melting into my shoes, listening to a disfigured man with breath as stale as his conversation forever. This isn’t just another November night. It’s a pit of hell that I’m trapped in, a punishment for unknown crimes against the universe.
“Sometimes the innocent are put in jail, and the guilty go free.”
Surprised by the comment, I turn back to him. “What?”
Claude’s face twists into a grin, his scar stretched into a new, more hideous shape. “That’s what I like about new guys. They ask questions.”
I shove my hands under my arms, giving up on the fire. “What are you talking about?”
“Questions. You have them. I don’t.”
“You don’t ask questions?”
“I don’t have them. Questions are energy. At some point, you reach a zero point of energy, and the questions run out.”
“Where does this energy go?” I’m drawn into the conversation. Not out of any real interest, but to keep my mind from going numb.
Claude smiles again, stroking his scar. “To the monsters.”
“Monsters,” I say flatly.
Claude laughs. “You’re going to have to do better than that. Already they’re sucking the energy out of you.”
I shake my head. “Just leave me alone. I’ve lost everything I cared about, and I don’t want to die listening to some insane homeless person.”
“You’re wrong. I’m not insane, nor am I a person.”
“Not a person? Then what the hell are you?”
“More. Ask me more.”
“You want me to ask you more questions?”
“Yes.” He licks his lips.
“Like ‘where’ve you been?’ and ‘what time is it?’ and ‘where’s the cat?’”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
Claude starts to shake. His voice is suddenly feeble, whispering “yes, yes” over and over to himself. His smile grows and the scar stretches further and further before it suddenly splits. Something oozes out of the wound, but it’s not blood. It’s a thick, bright red sludge, like melting red lipstick. I watch in horror as the slime slides down Claude’s face while he twitches in some private fit. It falls to the ground with a wet squelch into the watery snow.
And then the ooze slides over the ground, coming for me.
I back away from it, but my feet slip on the slush. My head slams against the slick concrete with a wet thud, and my vision blurs into a haze. I squeeze my eyes shut as I try to shove myself backwards, but my palms just slap against the broken asphalt. I can feel the ooze slide into my shoes.
The cold sogginess fades to nothing. I can’t feel my feet at all now. I use my legs to throw my heels against the ground, desperate to shake the ooze out of my shoes, desperate to feel something. My feet bounce once on the concrete, twice, and then my legs start to go numb as well.
I can see Claude curled up in a ball near me, between my clouds of breath. He’s staring at me, his eyes wide and glittering in the faint light of the fire. The skin of his cheek hangs down, quivering as he mouths the words “yes, yes.”
I don’t feel so cold. Not so cold… anymore. I don’t feel… much of… anything.
I open my mouth to… to ask Claude what he is… why he’s doing this… why I have to die.
I try… I try to speak, but there isn’t… I don’t…
I don’t have the energy to ask the questions.