Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Danake

by Jeffrey Sorensen



Dr. William Jobe stood outside of Charlie's Market, staring across the street. He sensed something on the changing weather just below perception. A feeling from the breeze lifted from the street and wrapped around him. He sensed it but couldn't name it. It felt like a song played in another room, muffled notes coming through in an incomplete melody, almost familiar, with the missing notes of silence becoming the true haunting tune.

Jobe, however, tried to push the thought out of his mind.

He stood, packing down the cigarettes he had just purchased, and watched the steam rise from the asphalt. Earlier that day an afternoon shower had covered the streets, but now, as the evening progressed and the temperatures dropped slowly, the moisture radiated from the warmth of Grace Street.

He loved this moment, this time between times. After the bustle of jam-packed rush hour cars had finished, the street died for the dinner hour. But now, even that time had passed. At just past nine, the true evening awoke as the street slowly came back to life.

He watched as the ten and eleven year-old boys risked their curfews by staying just a bit longer, trying to prove their manhood. They moved in and out of the college students appearing on the street in small groups like newly raised corpses, pale and with the look of disillusioned dreams.

This was Grace after the business hours, a crossroad for a motley assortment of humanity. Young professionals, stripped of ties and suit coats, entered and exited the bars and cafes, trying to regain their lost adolescence. An old woman walked past from out of Charlie's, a gallon of milk in one hand. The homeless began their nightly ritual of sitting on the cement retaining wall that separated the parking lot of the fast food restaurant from the street. There, perched with hands out and the smell of stale hops rising to the heavens, they would wait for the handouts.

Nights on Grace were his ritual, his lotus to forgetfulness. He took it all in. The sights and the smells of human bodies, some sweet and others acrid with dried sweat, filled him. He was with them all and, at the same time, apart. He was a stranger watching and feeling the drama unfold before him. It calmed him from his busy day of counseling teenagers. Here he could watch and not have to give advice or even a care, just watch.

He looked down the intersection of Laurel to where the street dumped onto Broad. A young couple hurried past and ducked into the pizzeria with the pool table. Then he turned back down Grace towards Allen. A thirty-something was handing a bill to York, a local bum everyone knew. All of life existed on the street as it gave away its moisture in a veil rising from the gleaming asphalt. Life was there, thick and tangible, breathing and consuming.

Lost in it, Jobe pulled a cigarette from the pack; sweet unlit tobacco filled his nostrils and mixed with the grime and perfumes of the street. He put the cigarette in his mouth and pulled out his lighter from his blazer pocket. For a moment he felt uncomfortable in it. The humidity coming off of the street wrapped about him and seeped into his shirt, sticking and grabbing onto his chest. He wanted to take his blazer off, but resisted, knowing he would feel exposed to the world without it. He knew his blazer and cigarette had become his security blanket.

A crinkling sound emerged as the tobacco caught, followed by the rising of the smoke. A small ribbon of white quickly expanded. He inhaled deeply and felt the scratchiness in his throat. He pursed his lips and blew the smoke out from his lungs, completely satisfied.

The smoke lingered about him for a moment and then evaporated into the air, parting like a veil. It took less than half a minute for the whole ritual, but in that time the ambulance appeared.

Jobe stared at it. Odd, he thought. He knew that he could lose himself in his evening walks to Charlie's, escape into a numbness that removed the tightness from his shoulders, but this sudden appearance of such a huge vehicle only five feet from him was more than he could imagine. There was no sound, and he knew it was not there before he lit the cigarette. He should have heard it, should have felt the rushing of displaced air pushing past him, cooling his hot, damp chest. But, there was nothing. No sound, no breeze, not even a warning had come.

Sharp white angles of the vehicle stood out in the haze of the evening, somehow separating it from the faded air under the streetlights. Pristine and clean, cleaner than any vehicle had a right to be, it was distant, and, yet, it stood passively in front of him, so close he could almost reach out and touch the pale metal sides. It glowed with a living energy, an obscene force, separated from the rest of the world.

"How in the hell..." Jobe muttered, issuing smoke from his mouth. He turned his head, trying to glance into the front of the vehicle, trying to spy the driver, but the front was empty.

He inhaled from his cigarette again, holding the smoke deep in his lungs, not breathing. It gave him time to ponder the behemoth before him. Could've come from the hospital, he reasoned. It made sense. After all, the hospital was only a few blocks to the east, but it still didn't explain how it arrived unnoticed, or where the paramedics had gone. If they had gone, he reasoned, I would have seen them.

He exhaled.

"Noooo!"

A piercing adolescent scream shot through his head. He turned quickly, the street blurring in his spin. For a split second his mind went dizzy. The smoke and the movement threw everything into disarray, a puzzling mixture of sights and sounds and smells.

"No!" came the scream again. Two men were escorting a small boy out of Charlie's. "No," the boy was screaming. "I'm not."

The men, impervious to the boy's ranting, walked on either side of him, the boy's arms held tightly by their clenched hands. They were in black polyester trousers and heavy nylon coats. Jobe pulled his thoughts together, the swaying in his head subsiding, and decided they must be the paramedics.

"I'm not!" yelled the boy again, trying to plant his feet into the cement of the walk.

"Yes," said one of the paramedics calmly.

Jobe inhaled a long drag, hoping it would calm his head, and exhaled a large plume into the night. He looked at the paramedics and then to the boy, still trying to make sense of everything. The boy's face was flushed and puffy. Tears plastered across his cheeks. He realized the boy was too young to be out this late.

"I'm not! I'm not!" The boy's feet, finding no traction on the walk, began to slam down. His soles slapped the cement without effect. The paramedics pulled him along without concern and brushed past Jobe, hitting his arm and knocking his cigarette from his hand.

In a single moment, a chill ran through Jobe. From up his elbow to his head and then down his spine, a coldness he had never felt before shot through and exited his soles at the same moment his cigarette hit the ground. Embers of tobacco leapt from the end as it somersaulted and fell into the gutter. A hiss came, extinguishing the flame, and then the cold was gone.

"No!" the boy cried as the paramedics were trying to lift him into the back of the ambulance.

The boy continued to struggle, squirming as much as he could under their grip. He twisted his torso trying to break free and placed his feet against the bumper, pushing hard with his legs until he was horizontal with the ground. "I'm not! I'm not!" His eyes closed tightly, and his face erupted in a red flush of anguish.

Jobe looked about the street to see if anyone had taken notice. Men and women, both young and old, continued on their way without a thought. Life continued without even a simple pause to the struggle in front of him. The homeless kept their arms outstretched to the passer-bys, a young professional hurried past and ducked into Charlie's, not even glancing at the paramedics, and a young teen stood at the wall asking York for a cigarette.

Back at the ambulance, the boy continued to scream and resist the paramedics, who, just as cold as before, ignored his pleas. One had a hand on the top of the boy's head and began to push hard, trying to force him to submit to the gaping doors of the ambulance.

"Wait," cried out Jobe and instantly regretted it. He was used to ignoring any involvement with life after hours, but something compelled him to speak. "Wait." He rushed a few steps and stood at arm's length from them.

One of the paramedics stopped pushing the boy and looked at Jobe blindly. Coldness emanated from his stone face, empty of feeling or compassion, a face that simply looked.

For a moment, Jobe lost his thought, overcome by the look. He stumbled through his mind, trying to recall his line of thinking. "I just thought," he stammered. "I do psychology work." The paramedic made no sign that he knew what Jobe was saying. "I work with children," Jobe continued, hoping that he wasn't coming off like a lunatic. "Maybe I can help calm him down."

"No!" cried the boy, arms flailing free from the loosened grip, but no escape followed. The other paramedic had shifted around the boy's waist and hoisted him into the back of the ambulance and quickly jumped in. The boy's screams and fits echoed through the vehicle.

"Well?" asked Jobe.

The paramedic who stood on the street looked Jobe over, apparently trying to size him up. Jobe felt violated by his coldness, his emotional detachment. "Don't touch the boy." The words came out flat and dead.

"What?"

"Get in, but don't touch the boy."

"Of course not. I'll just talk to him. Calm him down. Nothing else. I won't interfere."

The paramedic stepped into the ambulance and Jobe followed.

He half expected the sterile smells of antiseptics and alcohol, but the inside emitted nothing but light. Everything gleamed with an intensity that washed away any sense of perception. Everything seemed flat and dead. The walls were covered in thick white plastic, embedded storage bins lined the top half. Below the bins and a series of blank CRT screens ran two polished stainless steel benches. The first paramedic had moved to the deepest end and held the boy by the shoulders, pushing him down on the gurney between the benches. The other paramedic, the one who spoke to Jobe, was struggling to hold down the boy's kicking legs and his right arm at the same time.

"I'm not! I'm not!" continued the boy. The confined hard walls of the ambulance intensified the volume of his screams. Jobe felt the words echoing and pulsing through him. He wished he had never agreed to help.

"Please," said Jobe, "we're just trying to help you."

"No! You lie!" He kicked hard, close to Jobe's arm, but he missed, his toes smacking into the plastic wall with a dull thud.

Instinctively, Jobe began to reach out, to grab the boy's foot.

"Don't touch him!" The paramedic glared at Jobe.

"No, of course not."

For a moment the boy was quiet, shocked the paramedic was not yelling at him. He looked at Jobe; his eyes pleading with him for help.

"You need to calm down," said Jobe quietly to the boy. He wanted to sound assuring and firm but not threatening. "No one here wants to hurt you."

The boy seemed to consider the idea, but then anger returned to his face, scowling his brow. "You're a liar!"

During this time, the silent paramedic was able to pull a strap out from the front of the gurney and insert it into a large silver buckle on another strap from the other side. With a quick taunt pull, the strap tightened about the boy's shoulders, pinning his top half down. He yelled and kicked, but the other paramedic, no longer needing to hold down an arm, was able to repeat the process with another strap about his shins.

The boy could now only shake on the gurney. Even though his effort was extreme, the gurney only jostled slightly. The boy, however, made up for his incapacitation by renewing his screams.

The silent paramedic moved away from the gurney and slid down the metal bench, careful to avoid any contact with Jobe. He kept his eyes down, neither looking at the screaming boy or Jobe, and said nothing as he inched past. He cleared the gurney, step out the back, and, still without a word, closed the back doors.

Inside the boy kept yelling. "No I'm not!" Over and over, his voice pounded itself into Jobe's head. Once more, he realized how much of a mistake he made in coming along. Never offer to help ever again, he thought. From now on, he would simply keep quiet no matter what happened.

"It's important for you to settle down," said Jobe. "The paramedic needs you to stay still so he can help."

"You're lying!"

"Now, why would I lie?"

"Because you're with him."

Jobe heard the door to the front of the ambulance close and soon the engine turned over. A slight rumble could be felt even through the constant shaking of the gurney by the boy. Jobe was relieved they were moving. It would only be a few minutes until they arrived at the hospital and then he could walk back to his apartment. The walk shouldn't take more than twenty minutes he figured, enough time for him to clear his head and remind himself never to help again.

But first he needed to get the boy to calm down.

He decided to try an empathy approach and spoke of times when he was the same age as the boy. He spoke of being afraid of doctors, but his attempts at bonding were useless. The boy would not even listen. He busied himself with rattling the gurney and yelling how everyone was lying to him. No matter what approach Jobe would go with, the boy refused to listen. He could not explain to him that his constant fighting with the paramedic would only draw out the unpleasant ordeal.

The paramedic, who had been searching through one of the bins on the wall, was now looking down at the boy, a pair of forceps in his hands. "Now then," he looked straight into the boy's eyes without showing a hint of emotion, "you will need to remember, but first things must be first. Open your mouth."

The boy snapped his mouth shut and glared at him. He was so concentrated on keeping his mouth shut that he even stopped shaking in the gurney.

Jobe was thankful for the silence.

The paramedic, however, would not be delayed in his duties. With his free hand he grabbed onto the boy's nose, closing off his ability to breathe. The moment the boy gasped, he jammed the forceps into his mouth.

"Is he choking?" Jobe was shocked at the viciousness of the paramedic and thought there must have been a drastic change in the boy he couldn't have detected. The paramedic ignored Jobe and began to twist the forceps about, turning them back and forth, opening and closing them as if he were probing for something. Gurgling noises came from the boy, and Jobe knew that if the boy had not been choking before, he was now. Jobe watched as the paramedic pushed himself up over the boy, his weight supported by his hand on the boy's face. His forcefulness threw Jobe into a panic, convinced him that the paramedic would plunge the forceps through the boy's throat.

"Is this necessary!" Jobe reached forward, but the paramedic, sensing him, turned his back on him. His shoulder walled off Jobe's attempts to get at the boy. "Please! Just stop!"

The paramedic swiveled each time Jobe tried to get around, constantly blocking him from the head of the boy. If Jobe shifted to the right, the paramedic leaned in. If Jobe moved to the left, the paramedic leaned back. All attempts were as useful as his talks had been. He could do nothing but watch as the boy attempted to thrash about. He watched the boy's legs tense and struggle against the restraints, but the paramedic still continued to force the forceps about his throat.

"You need to stop! You need to stop this right now!" Jobe was screaming louder than the boy had done.

With a final twist of the forceps, the paramedic yanked the forceps out, and the boy convulsed, choking on his own spit. His throat muscles must have been worked beyond fatigue. His eyes watered as he gasped, biting down over and over again in an attempt to rip oxygen from the air around him. Jobe was moved to console the boy, but he knew it would be met with a stern reprimand.

The paramedic held the forceps before him, admiring his achievement. The prongs held tightly to a gold coin about the size of a quarter. Jobe saw the imprint of a head on it. The image was one of a woman facing forward and her hair radiated into a crude gesture of snakes. "You're kidding me. That thing was in his throat?" Jobe felt the tensing of his shoulders fall and his breath flood back into his lungs. Relief filled him. The boy had been choking. How? Jobe could not tell, but the ordeal was over. Soon they will be at the hospital and all of this would be over.

"Now, that is done." The paramedic let the coin drop from the forceps down onto the boy's stomach. "This will all be done with in no time now." He turned to put the forceps back into the bin.

Jobe took the opportunity while his back was to him to take the coin. He was hoping to get a better look at it, but, as the paramedic began to turn back around, Jobe panicked and dropped the coin into his pocket. Better to look at it later than be accused of touching the boy now.

"Now, you must remember." The paramedic looked straight into the boy's eyes. "Remember the day. That's all you have to do."

Tears built up in the boy's eyes. "No!"

Tell me the day. You must remember."

"It never happened!"

"The day!"

"I don't understand." Jobe was lost. "Wasn't he just choking?"

"Sir, I appreciate your concern, but this between me and the boy."

"But, why are you doing this to him? He was choking."

"Sir."

"No, this is just upsetting him unnecessarily."

The paramedic dismissed Jobe by simply turning away from him and focused his attention on the boy. "Tell the day. Just the day and you're free from all of this."

"No." The boy's voice sputtered out between tears. "You're lying. It never happened."

"Of course it did. Why else would I be here if it didn't."

"No, you lie."

"Just tell me!"

Jobe couldn't handle it any longer. If he couldn't get the paramedic to stop badgering the boy, then maybe he could get the boy to just give the information. "Son," his voice went to just above a whisper, "all you need to do is tell him the day. Just the day, and this will all be done."

The boy turned to him. Jobe saw an unstoppable fear in his eyes. The look said it was beyond saving, that giving up the day would somehow be the last of him. Just a day. None of it made any sense, but it was the only thing that he could think of to get the paramedic to ease up. "Please, just tell him."

"But it never happened." The boy looked hurt. "It never happened."

"The Day!" The explosion of the paramedic's voice threw the boy into a renewed flood of tears.

"Damn it! Ease up on him."

"Again, I remind you that none of this has anything to do with you."

"You're not going to do this to the boy."

"I will do what I'm here to do." Once more, the paramedic turned away from Jobe. His arrogance fueled Jobe's hatred, but there was very little he could do. "The day," continued the paramedic. "Tell me the day and all of this is over."

"It never happened!"

"The day!"

"Please, no more of this."

"It never happened!"

"Damn it! Just tell me the day you died!"

"What?" Jobe knew he must have heard it wrong, but the paramedic ignored him and continued to yell at the boy, demanding the boy tell him the day of his death. And, the boy continued to deny that it ever happened. Jobe fell back completely on the bench, tension tightened his shoulders. He wanted out; he needed to get away. Why? Why would he ask a boy that? Why was he so determined to make the boy admit to an event that could not have happened?

"Please," the boy pleaded. Tears covered his cheeks. "Please."

"Just say it. You know what day I mean."

"Please."

"Say it and it's all done."

"Friday!"

"Which Friday?"

"Good Friday!"

"What the hell is this?" Jobe had pushed himself as far back as he could from the two of them. Part of him wanted to drift away, to disappear into the walls, but another part needed to know. "Good Friday was two months ago. What the hell is going on?"

"What has always gone on."

"I don't understand. The boy was choking. You got his throat clear. I don't understand."

"The boy needed to remember. He needed to accept it."

"But you saved him."

"I did nothing but remind him. Now it's time for you to go."

"But the boy." Jobe looked down at the gurney. It stood silent before him, shrouded in the ungodly bright light. Quiet, emotionless, it was nothing more than an extension of the paramedic himself. Unfeeling and eternal, but, above all else, empty. The boy was gone.

Shortly after the ambulance stopped moving, the paramedic who had been driving opened the back doors. Moist air rushed in like a breath, filling the inside of the ambulance with the smell of the streets. Jobe pushed himself off of the bench and stepped through, his feet landing on the wet asphalt. The paramedic grabbed onto the doors and was about to shut them. Jobe reached out to hold the door back to keep it from closing. "I need to know why."

"It's not for you to know." He was clammy and cold like the beginning.

Jobe let the door go free. He watched them close. He watched as the ambulance pulled away without a sound until it disappeared around the corner. And as quickly as it began, it was done. He was back outside of Charlie's. All around him the people moved about, hustling down the street, going on with their lives as if there was nothing but themselves. Jobe watched, feeling the street breathe its hot damp breath, pulsing through the air. It was alive and unknowing, and Jobe was no longer a part of it. He had become a stranger in his own world.

He stuck his hand into his coat pocket, feeling for his cigarettes, but pulled out the coin instead. He observed the face of a gorgon on its front. He flipped it over and saw an anchor on its reverse. Where in the hell did the boy get the coin? And, where in the hell was the boy now?

Nothing but questions, and in front of him the asphalt shining under the dampness of an afternoon shower.

THE END

Danake


© 2011 Jeffrey Sorensen

Bio: Jeffrey Sorensen teaches literature and logic at a charter school. His work has appeared in several publications, most recently the anthology M is for Monster, October, 2010 (specifically the story "M is for Man").

E-mail: Jeffrey Sorensen

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