Dancer for Money

Chapter 4- The World is Stone

by Dice


Chapter 4. The World is Stone

The night is long over when I wake up. I don't know how much I've slept, just enough to know it's not enough. I start to get up then remember there's no point and my head falls back on the pillow, it's throbbing painfully. My throat aches as well, it hurts to swallow. I don't know when I stopped crying or when I fell asleep, but it feels like it was only minutes ago.

There's a sudden sharp rap at my door and even before I can fully form the thought, I know it's Sam and I fly out of bed, grabbing my jeans. I stumble into them in a rush and then stop, snapping myself out of it. What the hell am I doing? I shake my dully aching head.

Another knock comes, sharp and decisive, I give the door a hesitant stare, there's one more, harder.

"Open up! Police!"

It's like two hands slip into my chest and squeeze my heart until it feels like it will explode. I stare at the door in terror, unable to move my feet. The command is repeated, impatiently and I wonder if they'll bust my door in. My eyes dart around the room, but there's nowhere to go.

My hand close around the handle, slick with sweat, I'm fighting to keep my face blank, but my hands are shaking.

They look at me slightly surprised, as if they'd given up, I swallow and try to open my mouth, but it doesn't happen.

"Are you James Merrin?" the officer levels me with a calculating glare and I wet my lips, still not able to make a sound I feel my head dip in a nod, I don't take my eyes off him. "We'd like to ask you a few questions, may we come in?" he looks vaguely as if he might care whether I agree, but takes a step over my threshold even as I'm releasing the door.

They trudge into my flat, smoothly positioning themselves on opposite sides of me, the policeman who spoke to me stands between me and the door, the other scan the room with seeming casual disinterest. I still have only my jeans on and staring into the bulky jacket in front of me makes me feel small and exposed.

"Were you home last night?" he begins, I give a shrug and nod, he's expecting more so I clear my throat, fighting the raw ache in it and force myself to speak.

"Yeah, just out for fish 'n' chips with a friend…" I mumble hoarsely.

"Colin Davidson? Name familiar? Might go by Davey..." he sees my confusion and even as I respond he's fishing a picture out of his pocket. It's a photo of a summer garden, in the middle a bright eyed, blond boy playing with a dog and flirting with the camera, he reminds me of Alex, but I don't know this boy, I shrug and shake my head. "No? He was found this morning, in an alley off Waterby Road?"

Then I know who it is, the new boy, the skinny, gaunt brat that Guy hired for half of what I cost him. They found him in the alley. They don't have to say dead, they don't have to say anything else, I know. Sam's quiet words of caution come back to me as does his frustration with me for never listening.

"Know who he is?" the policeman asks as he snaps the photo back from my limp fingers.

"Yeah," I whisper, "I mean no… not really, only saw him for half a second yesterday, never seen him before," but I see him now, on the stage, a frightened rabbit thrown out in front of the wolves. "Shit! Poor kid!"

The policeman's features soften and he glances over at his partner. I see the look they exchange, but can't read it. I'm still numb, the flat and the events seeming to drift away from me, unreal, like a bad dream you can't wake up from.

"We're looking for Nicholas Dunham, you don't happen to know where we can find him?" the other policeman says, stepping a little closer to me, his voice is sharp, it coils around me like barbed wire. I shake my head.

"Why would I?" I ask, trying to force confidence into my words. I feel torn open, his eyes lock with mine, telling me he knows something, everything, they can see right through me and I can't run from him, I can't stop the shiver that runs through me. He raises one eyebrow.

"You've had dealings with him, we understand," the first policeman continues behind me, I shoot him a quick look, unwilling to turn my back on those knowing eyes.

"I knew him from work, that's all…" I don't have time to say more, I sense him close the gap between us even as I turn back and his hand lands heavily on my shoulder.

"Don't waste our time, mister Merrin," he states flatly, tone low and threatening, I stare up into his face, feeling a cold rill of sweat run down my forehead, his tone makes the word mister sound like complete mockery. "I'm in no mood to drag you in to piss in a cup when we both know what our boy Nicky does when his clothes are on, so tell me where he is and we'll be out of your hair, all right?"

"I don't know!" I try to make my tone as flat as his, I meet his eyes, though I'm sure he can feel the trembles going through me under his steady grip on my shoulder. The grip hardens and I catch my lower lip between my teeth. "I only ever saw him at the club! I don't even know where he lives!"

He squeezes my shoulder hard enough to leave a dent and I cringe, my eyes dropping from his, I'm about to buckle under the pain, but then the other policeman lays a hand on his and he lets me go without a word, they exchange a look again and my unlikely rescuer tilts his head, catching my eye with that knowing look of his.

"There was a tin box, green, lock broken, seemed to have been something in it. We were told you were there to see Mr. Dunham last night, did you happen to see that box?"

My heart flies into my throat, I'm sure he sees the recognition flashing in my eyes before I can hide it, his mouth forms a thin line as he waits for my response. I swallow and look down. Lie with the truth my dad used to tell me, the only way to get away with it. I look up at him and nod.

"It was Nick's, don't know what was in it," I feel myself chewing my lip again, but he's satisfied and nods his colleague towards the door.

"Thank you for your cooperation, Mr. Merrin, we'll be back if we have more questions," he says quietly as he releases the door into my hand, the look he gives me is unmistakeable, he expects them to have more questions and he's as good as telling me not to leave town.

*****

The pills swirl downwards in a maelstrom, mimicking the feelings inside me. I flush again though there's no water left and the drugs are gone. The crumpled plastic cuts into my hand. I throw the little bag into the bin. There's nothing more now, it's all gone and still I feel as if I'll be caught any second. My eyes dart towards the door despite the silence in the empty flat.

I flush again for good measure and then close the lid. I wash my hands under cold water, there's no hot water; rent still unpaid. I watch my fingers lose colour under the spray and feel them go numb before snatching them away and rubbing them dry on a damp towel.

Sinking down on the foldout bed I drop my head into my hands.

My mind won't calm. My heart is still racing. My hands shake. They've gone, they weren't here for me. I didn't know the kid… Nick… I ratted Nick out, fuck! I wasn't there, I didn't know him. Nick would throw me under the bus in an instant… I wasn't there. I wasn't there. I'm so dead. I didn't touch the box. How did he die? I'm clean, I didn't use anything for days… What was in the box? He looked like Alex…

I get up, pacing the room and then sink down in the dead man's chair. I rock and rub my hands on my thighs. I wipe at my runny nose with my sleeve folded over my fist. I don't stop rocking. I don't stop thinking. Trembles grow inside me, convulsing.

The pounding on my door shoots me out of the chair and I half expect my heart to stop, I stare in disbelief, unable to move as the hammering continues.

"Merrin!? You in there, you little cunt!?" I almost laugh out loud, my landlord's voice for a brief moment a relief from the storm inside me.

I open the door, cringing as the old man's glare fixes on me. He's chewing on a cigar, a cliché in a checkered shirt and brown leather vest. He's leaning heavily on the doorframe, a gold ring glinting on his finger in the flickering from the fluorescent lights, one has broken, leaving the stairwell in semi darkness.

"Hey…" I can't make my voice strong and know I probably look like a kicked puppy. "Look… I know…" He cuts me off brusquely with a harsh wave.

"Don't you dare fucking tell me you haven't got it!" he barks, his eyes squinting and fist clenching. I look at my feet, my teeth clenching hard enough to break and it's suddenly impossible to swallow, not solely due to the aching in my throat. He growls like a dog. "You have today! You got that!? Got it!? Or you're out of here!"

I nod, not looking up; he slams his hand against the doorframe and then he leaves, thundering down the stairs, I see him throw a last glare my way as he turns on the lower landing and I push my door closed, watching it swing slowly shut with a quiet click.

I wonder to myself how deep a hole you can dig yourself into before it collapses in around you.

There is no money. Hasn't been for days.

Leaning my head against the door I bang my forehead against it, hard, once, twice and then turn around, sinking to the floor and pulling my knees up to my chin. I huddle in the quiet room. The rent's been an issue I've pushed to the back of my mind, thought I could deal with it later as always, but that was when I had the promise of a steady pay.

Well, any pay, it was never that steady with Guy. I'm sure that technically he owes me for the hours I've worked since he last paid me, but asking isn't even close to an option, wasn't before I punched him in the mouth and even less so now.

There's a problem with burning your bridges while you're standing on them, you set yourself on fire and then you drown.

I lie down on the floor, my head sinks down on the carpet and I lie there, eyes opening and closing. I look at the duffel bag under the bed, it holds my life; everything is in there and that's barely anything.

I can take it and walk away. Just leave.

It's an option.

Then what? End up living under the turnpike and selling myself to survive? I start to laugh.

It's ironic… one stupid favour for Nick just to save myself that humiliation and what hasn't it cost me? God, what if Sam saw me now? That thought makes me choke on my laughter. I thought you were smarter…

I look at the bag again… everything I have is in it and that's barely anything… but it is something… Regret wells up inside me and I curl up and cry, hiding my face in my arms.

*****

I count the bills in my hand, there's one missing, but I don't turn around to see if he's waiting for me to complain and I don't try to stop him when I hear his steps against the wet pavement. My eyes stare blankly at the bills, they're only crumpled paper, worn and used. I stuff them in my pocket and feel them crumple even more in my fist.

As if things weren't bad enough I finally begin to realise the soreness in my throat is a cold coming on. The steady drizzle is the same that's been coming down for days now and my breath turns to mist when I wheeze into the cold air. I huddle into Sam's jacket as I start heading back home, it doesn't fit me, but I don't mind, I feel as if I can vanish inside it. The hood of my sweater is pulled out from under it and pulled down over my forehead.

I regret not fighting for that bill.

Part of me still can't believe what I've done, the denial goaded on by a threatening sense of nausea. The money feels filthy against my skin and I pull my hand out of my pocket and shove both hands into my armpits. You've done worse things, I tell myself, but can't quite make myself believe it.

Tears threaten suddenly, burning against my eyelids. What have I done? I stop in the middle of the pavement, holding up the flow of the passersby for a moment before they adapt and go around me. The rain keeps falling.

It was the one thing I thought I would never sell, the one memory I had left that was untainted, but it's lost now and any vestiges of teenage innocence is gone with it.

I take a deep breath. I'm being stupid, childish! Selling it was the only sensible thing I could do! I should count myself lucky he still wanted it! I have to pay my rent! I have to eat! It was all I had worth a damn!

The pain stays dully in the hollow space inside me. I try to swallow the tears and feel the burning at the back of my throat. My head is beginning to feel heavy; I'm probably getting a fever. I pull out the sleeve of my sweater and wipe my nose on it, but it immediately begins to leak again.

I suddenly want chocolate, hot chocolate. It used to be my dad's token effort to nurse me back to health, a cup of chocolate and maybe a story, if he had time.

I slip into the café and then merely stand quietly just inside; someone else comes in behind me and I let them pass me, pulling into the corner next to the door. It's the same place Bolton bought me coffee. There are a lot of people, but no one looks at me. A man is reading a newspaper at one of the high tables near me, he looks up once, but doesn't seem to notice me.

The line is short despite the many guests. The girl behind the counter dances between the register and the espresso machine like she's following a strict choreography. A quick, bright eyed little smile and a have-a-nice-day is passed along with every cup.

"You've got chocolate... hot?" I ask, my voice strange to my own ears, grating and shaky.

"Sure! Anything else?" I just shake my head and dig out the money from my pocket. As she hands me my cup and my change she turns her bright eyed little smile on me and I find myself waiting for the have-a-nice-day, but instead she tilts her head and her nose crinkles slightly. "Cheer up, it's not going to rain forever!" she says and I feel a small, self conscious laugh burst like a bubble from my chest, I'm surprised at how good it feels.

I sit for a long while, sipping at the hot chocolate, watching the rain through the window. The man near the door has left, leaving his paper behind on the table. I sidle out of my seat and snatch it before someone else has the same idea.

I glance at the front page and skim the headlines, then flip through to the work ads. I look at the page for a long time until I finally realise I can't remember a single word I read and let it fall on the table in front of me; who'll hire me anyway? I take another sip of my chocolate, letting the hot liquid relieve the soreness in my throat. My eyes roam the front page again catching the date, it's the 18th. I sniff and take a napkin I got with my cup to blow my nose.

The 18th... It hits me like a fist in the gut. My hands, still holding the napkin, fall like dead weights into my lap. I stare blindly out into the café; it seems suddenly cold and the chatter is distant as if there's a ringing in my ears.

It was today.

My chest feels so tight I can't breathe. It hurts, as if my heart is being torn into pieces and even if I tried, even if I wanted to I can't cry; the tears seem to have been swallowed up by the hollow, empty space inside me.

Someone taps my shoulder and the sounds around me come rushing back, a woman asks if I'm done with the paper, I barely nod, only shove it her way. Then I drink my chocolate, I drink it all, choking on it and coughing.

*****

When I get off the bus the rain has stopped, but the wind is still chilly. There are no leaves left on the trees by the road here. I walk across to the other side and stop. The low stone wall runs the length of the road, only broken once by a gate. Beside the gate there's a board with notices that I don't bother looking at.

My hand closes around the heavy black iron of the gate, I push lightly and it gives, opening smoothly with only a squeak to protest the action. A gravel path leads up to the small parish church, its tall, narrow windows gleam black in the bleak light, like empty eyes watching me.

I haven't been back here since the funeral and still my feet take me across the grass as if they'd walked this path a million times. His grave is marked with a small, simple stone. A little marble dove, nestled at its base, is the only decoration.

I crouch down on my heels in front of the grave, wrapping my arms around my legs. I sit there, reading the name and date carved into the stone, making it everlasting, making it unchangeable.

"Hello, Alex," I whisper to the cold stone. "It's Jamie."

Then I'm quiet.

"I..." I start, the words sticking in my throat. I try to clear it. I feel worse than before; my ears ache and my jaw. I wipe my runny nose and close my eyes. "I sold your comic book." Saying it out loud loosens something inside me and I draw a shaky breath, but I can almost see him raise his eyebrow and shrug. "I know, I know, what do you care, right? You said it was mine so..." I trail off.

I hug my knees tightly to my chest and watch the silent stone in front of me. I remember us lying in his bed, the covers pulled over our heads, him holding the torch in one hand and the other wrapped around my waist. I was turning the pages, carefully, slowly, well aware this wasn't just any comic book, it was from his uncle, mint condition. He'd never let any of our other friends touch it, but he let me.

"He's going to spank him," I remember looking at him, his face so oddly intent as he met my eyes. "Who?" I asked, my cheeks flushing hotly though I didn't quite know why. "Batman, there, look!" he flipped the page. I looked, feeling odd, embarrassed and as if my heart was standing still in my chest. Then I looked back to him and he smiled that smile that was my smile. We were twelve.

Years later, when I asked if he still had it, he tossed it to me across the room and told me to keep it. I had, until now. Now... now I'd sold it. The last piece I had left of him, there's nothing real now, nothing solid to hold in my hands. Nothing to tie him to me.

"I miss you... I can't do this without you..." I rock back and forth, tears welling up, I feel myself about to let go, about to let my grief pull me along.

Then there's a rustle in the grass behind me and I look over my shoulder, startled. One knee hits the gravel hard and I stagger to my feet, eyes blurry with tears and my head hazy and throbbing dully. I find myself shaking, unable to stop.

Their eyes are trained on me, their faces pale and hard, filled with doubt and shock. She looks away first, turning her face into his coat and hissing something to him while intently tugging on his arm. My insides turn over as I stare at them, I feel like I'm tumbling down a hole, the ground sways underneath my feet. She looks old, dry like a leaf and frail. He looks much like he always did, like how I always knew Alex would look when he grew older. His eyes seek mine out, but I stare beyond him.

"Why, Jamie?! Why were you up there?! Where did he get the drugs?! What were you thinking?! Why didn't you stop him?!" I don't remember now who asked which of all the questions I couldn't answer. I just remember how she clung to me, shaking me and how he pulled her away, angrily telling me to go home. Go home. Go home… while my best friend lay dying beyond those doors that were closed to me.

And I remember how they looked at me at the funeral, as if they wished it had been me instead. I can't breathe and I can't move. Around us is quiet, a cold wind shifting the branches and the low hum of traffic from the main road; nobody speaks.

They turn away from me as someone comes up behind them and she says something I can't make out. Bolton looks over at me, a frown deepening; he pats her shoulder and takes a step towards me, but that breaks the spell and I flee, sticking my hand in my pockets and walking purposely away from them. His voice follow me, but I don't stop.

Then there's a bark and before I know it a small bundle of fur is jumping up against my leg, yipping happily, tail whipping back and forth. I blink down at the dog, a small cairn terrier, Alex's dog. I find myself kneeling in the damp grass, my hands digging into the sand coloured fur, he paws at Sam's jacket and climbs up to lick my face.

"He misses you," Bolton's voice is quiet, but I start as if he'd shouted.

I let Biscuit go and stand up, ignoring the sense of guilt the dog's obvious disappointment causes me. I turn and look at Bolton, our last disastrous meeting a vivid memory. I wipe my nose and cough a little, it's painful and I try to swallow, but my mouth is too dry. His face is solemn, sad and on his jaw is a partly faded bruise. He notices me looking and rubs at it with a tilted grimace.

"Courtesy of your friendly bouncer, big black fellow, very adamant about my leaving you alone," he says, still speaking softly. Biscuit has finally stopped bouncing and lain down on my feet. Sam never told me he threw Bolton out, but then again I never asked. "I didn't expect to see you here."

I shrug, looking away.

"Tel said he went to see you..." I shrug again, I don't want to talk to him. I want to go home and curl up in my bed and cry until it kills me. "Look, Jem..." I wince, Alex sometimes called me that, it sounds odd coming from someone else.

"Don't... don't call me that..." I say, my voice is gruff and choked, it comes out harsher than I might've meant.

"We're lighting a candle... won't you join us?" he asks and I shoot him a doubtful look, does he think they will welcome me?

I feel my head shaking a slow no as I bend and lift Biscuit up. I hug him and he makes every effort to get closer, trying to lick me. I bury my face in his fur for a moment and then I hand him to Bolton, who takes him. The sound of Biscuit's whine haunts me as I turn and walk away. I don't say anything and Bolton doesn't call me back.

*****

The stairwell is completely dark as I reach my floor, the lights having finally given up the battle and the evening having passed into night. My head is swimming and I stagger up the steps, swaying and stumbling. I'm not sure what's wrong with me, but somewhere a thought is trying to form telling me I have a fever.

There's a narrow rectangle of light on the wall, breaking apart the darkness. I look at it, finding it hard to understand what's wrong with it. I follow the light to source. My door is open.

Why is my door open?

I walk the last few steps, trying desperately to clear my head. My hand touches the door, fingers sliding down it, it makes no sound as it falls open. The doorframe is broken. The duffel bag lies tossed aside just beyond the threshold, it's been turned inside out, its contents strewn across the floor. The foldout bed's turned on its side, the mattress ripped.

A man's crouched beside the chair. I back away, fear gripping me through my fevered state. He's not alone, there's noise of someone else rummaging through the bathroom.

Something must reveal my presence, because the man by the chair turns sharply and sees me, his face twisting in a dangerous scowl. I throw myself blindly down the stairs in the dark. Voices shout out abruptly behind me and then I hear only footsteps following. I tumble downwards, missing the steps and hitting the wall.

The door won't open quickly enough. My heart is roaring in my ears, I break through it finally and stumble into the night. They're just behind me. My feet pound against the sidewalk, catching in the cracks and send me flying. I roll and get up, but a hand snatches my collar. I twist out of Sam's jacket, but I'm shoved roughly against the bricks of a building.

They drag me in between the houses. A narrow alley reeking of piss and garbage. My face scrapes the brick wall, a fist sinks into my gut and I fold over, breath knocked out of me.

"The fuck's the stuff?" One of them shakes me and I'm slammed against the bricks again. I can't clear my head and I don't know what they're talking about. I try to respond, but can't catch my breath long enough to get a sound out. "Where is it!?" The voice is gruff, aggressive and the violence in it no mere threat as a fist crashes into my mouth and knocks my head back, another follows seconds after, blood flows from my nose, the taste thick and metallic.

Cowering, I crumble into a pile on the ground, making myself a tight ball as heavy boots kick me in the side, aiming for my ribs, my arms wrap themselves around my head, barely managing to protect my face. There are more questions, they're distant, incomprehensible; I can't answer and the beating continues. I keep my eyes shut tight and beg for unconsciousness to take me.

At length it does.

To be continued...

~ Dice

Send warm fuzzies to Dice.

Read more of Dice's writing.

Return to the Stories page.