My fingers grasp the wire of an eight foot tall chain link fence. Yards away and surrounded by the fence, the abandoned brick warehouse is slowly crumbling. Broken red bricks are scattered in the dirt and on the cracked concrete pavement that encircles the building. The glass that was once in the large window frames is either missing or riddled with holes caused by pellet guns or rocks. Graffiti made up of large black or white lettering, various geometric symbols and cartoonish, distorted faces cover the walls. It looks like the artistic result of a team of madmen. Baking in the noontime, glaring midsummer sun, the warehouse gives off visible waves of heat. My jeans are down around my ankles. An old man with rheumy eyes and holding a piece of broken board is standing behind me. Through the eye holes in my mask I stare at the warehouse and wonder when it will either collapse or be torn down.
"Are you ready?" the old man says, his voice quivering, either from drunkenness, nervousness or excitement, it's hard to tell.
I press my face against the fence, the mask serving as a shield, protecting my skin from the rusted metal.
I grunt, a signal that I'm ready.
He swings the board back then smacks it with full force against my bare ass, then does it again and again. I bite my lip in an attempt to endure the pain. My knees have almost buckled. I watch as a brick falls from the top of the warehouse and breaks into several pieces as it hits the concrete.
At last I tell him, "Enough."
I pull up my jeans, adjust the mask, and take twenty dollars from a pocket and hand it to him.
He drops the board, and grinning almost maniacally, he wads the money in his hand and walks away.
Travis, who has been watching from nearby comes up to me and says, "Did it hurt?"
"Like fucking hell," I say.
"You have all the luck," he says.
* * *
Like an enormous animal brought down by a flame thrower, the burnt, blackened remains of a school bus stands on melted tires in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping mall. The lot is overgrown with weeds, many of them with prickly leaves or thorns. The front door of the bus is open and I walk up the scorched front steps to the front of the aisle. Only a slight odor still hangs in the air from the remains of the plastic seats. All of the windows are gone, but there is no breeze passing through.
Travis is outside the bus. He has his boots and socks off and is holding them in his hands as he jumps about among the weeds. "Ouch," he keeps repeating with a mixture of suffering and glee. His mask has fallen from his face and dangles from his neck by an elastic band.
I sit down in one of the seats facing the aisle and inhale sharply as the nerves in my bruised ass respond to the sudden pressure. Through the window across from me I watch a scrawny brown mongrel enter the mall through the broken glass in one of the doors. I've been inside and there's nothing left of even the slightest value. Debris from the deteriorating ceilings and walls of what was once the stores lies in heaps on the rain damaged floors. Brackish puddles have formed in the corridors. Birds have built nests along ledges and the tops of neon signs. It has become an aviary.
When I was a teenager I would take the subway out here just to eat in the mall's food court and watch movies in the theater. I also earned money by letting men watch me jack off in the stalls in the men's restrooms.
Travis enters the bus and sits on the remains of the driver's seat. As he pulls thorns and nettles from the soles of his feet, he says, "This part of town has turned to shit."
"No kidding," I say.
* * *
"You young people have no respect for anything or anyone," the slightly obese woman sitting across from us on he subway, says. She's gripping her purse tight against her ample breasts, either to protect it or her. The scowl on her face looks as if it's permanent.
Travis starts to say something to her in return, but I place my hand on his arm, turn my masked face to his and say, "Not now. Not to her." I feel his entire body relax at my side. Perhaps he's glad to be saved from another confrontation with a complete stranger, or he's saving his energy for the next time. I've known him for five years and I still can't read his body language.
The car we're in is crowded but no one is standing. We are for the most part all being polite canned sardines squeezed into the seats. I'm acutely aware of the noxious mixture of aromas: body odor, bad perfume, cheap after shave, unwashed clothes. I try to look out the window but only see my reflection in the blackness of the glass. Even from behind the concealment of the mask, staring at anyone is likely to be met with some degree of hostility, so I stare into my lap as if I'm exploring an undiscovered landscape.
When the train stops we file out of the car, jostled amidst a small crowd getting off with us who collide with an equal size crowd getting on. I'm not good in crowds and I begin to panic. A hand reaches out and tries unsuccessfully to pull the mask from my face. It snaps back into place stinging my face. I catch up to Travis who is about to step onto the escalator. I grasp his hand and ride to the top, standing on the same step he is on.
At the top he loosens his hand from mine. "Was that necessary?" he says.
"No," I say. But it was.
When we walk out of the station it's twilight. Streaks of deep purple, blood red and shimmering gold are fanned out across a sky full of violent beauty.
* * *
Sitting cross legged next to Travis on the hot pavement I hold up the piece of cardboard that has the words "kick me" written on it. Travis is doing the same. Both the cardboard and the pen were bought for five dollars from a homeless man near the subway station. Leaning back against the sun-heated wall of the closed dress shop I can feel the rivulets of sweat running down my spine. My shirt feels glued to the wall. Night descended quickly and we sit in the glow of a streetlamp and the headlights of passing vehicles. The air is thick with exhaust fumes and the scent of rotting garbage. Next to where we sit there is a fresh puddle of urine. Inside the mask, sweat covers my forehead and cheeks.
Through the mask's eye holes I watch the feet and legs of passersby. Their comments are easily heard.
"I'm with you bros."
"I don't get it."
A sharp kick to my knee by a pointed shoe wakes me from the drowsiness I feel brought on by the smothering humidity. "Ow," I say in response.
"Did someone just kick you?" Travis says.
"Lucky bastard," he says.
He has removed his shirt and I can feel the smoothness of his bare side against my arm. Travis is startlingly attractive and I can only imagine what passersby think when they see his bulging biceps, well developed chest and six pack abs. He works on his body religiously, but is unaware of the effect his looks have on others. The mask hides his handsome face.
A man with a neatly trimmed beard squats down in front of Travis. "Why are you doing this?" he says.
"It's our form of protest," Travis says.
"Doesn't being kicked hurt?" the man says.
"It's not me being kicked," Travis says pointing to the mask.
I watch as the man places his hand on Travis' leg and slowly slides it up Travis' thigh and closer to his crotch.
Travis grabs the mans hand and bends it backward. "That's not why I'm here," he says.
The man pulls his hand away. "It wasn't you I was doing that too," he says tapping Travis' mask and laughing mockingly. He stands up and walks away.
After a moment, Travis says to me, "Do you think the area where the mall is will be revived?"
"Maybe," I say. "But like most things now, the cost will be the dignity and soul of anyone who makes the deal to improve it."
* * *
It's several blocks before we turn into the alleyway where the back entrance to our apartment building is located. The dumpster is overflowing with trash and meat that has turned rancid and been thrown out by the ground level Chinese restaurant.
Before we start up the stairs, Travis holds out his hand. "Do you need to hold it again?"
"Fuck off," I say as I push past him.
Our one bedroom apartment is very small. There is no air conditioning. Even here on the third floor, when the windows are open the stench from the alley invades the apartment. The windows are closed and it's like walking into a sauna. We remove our masks and hang them on a hook in the wall by the door. Donald Trump's plastic bloated cheeks, petulantly pursed lips and pale orange skin, faces me with voided eyes. The outline of a hard cock and balls pointed toward the mouth is drawn on the masks.
Travis is sitting on the sofa. He's removing his boots. The living room is very small with only the sofa, television and a stand with a lamp in it. The walls are painted a pale gray that gives them the look of dull metal. Being in the room is like being inside a tin box. The only picture on any of the walls is of Travis and I standing in front of the Christmas tree at my parents' home. It was taken soon after I met him in a political science class while in college. One of the first things he told me was that he was a masochist. "I'm a glutton for punishment," he said. In some ways he sees Donald Trump's presidency as a godsend.
He throws his boots and socks in a corner, then stands up and takes off his jeans and tosses them onto of his boots. Naked, he stretches out on the sofa.
"We need to up our game," he says.
I sit on the arm of the sofa and remove my boots and socks. I drop them on the floor by the sofa.
"How?" I say as I pull my t-shirt off.
"Do something destructive, that draws attention. Maybe violence of some sort," he says.
I remove my pants and put them on top of my boots. I rub my sore ass then squeeze onto the edge of the sofa next to him and lie motionless by his side. "That's not us," I say.
"Then who are we?" he says.
* * *
I wake with a start, immediately aware that I'm alone on the sofa. The light is still on. I sit up on the edge of the sofa and call out his name, but get no response. I walk through the apartment. Travis is gone. Finally I see that his mask isn't on the hook. I dress hurriedly and leave the apartment with only a hunch of where Travis has gone to guide me. Leaving the building, I step out into the slightly cooler pre-dawn air. A misty rain washes my maskless face. A large gray rat scurries across the alley and under the dumpster. Like the alley, the street is silent as I walk out onto the sidewalk. I turn left and quickly walk the dimly lit streets.
The red flashing neon sign of The Bad Uncle saloon is above the door. I hesitate for a moment before going in. As I do I have to allow my eyes to slowly adjust to the dim lighting and my nose to adjust to the unpleasantness of stale beer and bleach. A man wearing a white cloth tied around his waist like an apron is mopping the floor.
He looks up and says, "We're about to close."
"I'm looking for my friend," I say. "He was most likely wearing a mask."
"This was the wrong bar to come into with that on," he says. He points to a door in the back of the saloon. "They took him out back."
The soles of my boots stick to the floor as I walk to the door. As I step out I see Travis in the light cast by an outdoor emergency light mounted above the door. He is hung by his outstretched arms on two poles tied together in the shape of a cross. He's naked except for his boots. His ripped clothing is scattered about on the slab of concrete that covers the small area enclosed by a brick wall. Even before I am near him I can see the bruises on his torso and face. I step up to him and take his battered face in my hands. Several of his front teeth are missing. Blood has caked on his swollen lips.
The torn mask is hanging around his neck.
I place my hand on his chest and feel the beating of his heart. "Travis?"
He opens his right black and purple eye just enough to see me through a thin slit. With difficulty he mumbles, "They beat the shit out of me."
"You knew they would," I say as I untie his arms and lay him on the ground. "Did you enjoy it?"
His chuckle is mixed with a painful groan.
"I'll get you to the hospital," I say. "But after this we'll have to find a better way."
Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over 200 short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. He has two collections of short stories that have been published; Sand, published by Clarendon House Publications, and Heat, published by Czykmate Productions. His plays have been produced in several states in the U.S. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Twitter @carrsteven960. His website is https//www.stevecarr960.com. He's on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Carr/100012966314127