The air in the shop was fragrant and warm, a stark comparison to the bitter cold and pungency of the alley outside. Rows of pretty tarts and manicured mini cakes lined the front window, glowing in the murky morning light and drawing wanderers towards the bakery. Rhonda worked behind the counter, hair pulled away from her face haphazardly, buzzing around the bakery. Her left arm was covered in bracelets, beads made of glass and plastic and clay and metal jingling against one another to create a unique melody that followed her everywhere. Rhonda greeted the customers swiftly, her sweet, mischievous voice complemented by the glint of wry wit that sparkled in her dark eyes.
A tall, thin man wearing a black knit hat covered in snow and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck entered the bakery, letting the door fly shut with a bang that made the cake stands on the counter rattle. He frantically pulled off his foggy glasses, squinting, rubbing them hastily on the soft fabric of his dark scarf. Looking back at the door, flustered, he started to unwind his scarf and pulled his hat off, startled as he noticed how crowded the little bakery was. Squeezing into the shop and further from the doorway, he hastily shoved his hat and scarf into a large pocket of his long coat. He stood several heads taller than the rest of the people in the bakery and could see clearly to the counter despite the winding line of unhurried patrons. Rhonda slung a waxy bag across the counter to a man she addressed as Lou, accessorizing the much-practiced move with a friendly wink at the old, crooked man who grabbed the pastry and shuffled towards the door.
The gun was cold and heavy in the tall man’s pocket. He shivered as he gripped the concealed weapon, setting his jaw and looking towards the counter. Rhonda dropped a handful of change into the register with a decisive rattle, grinning at the latest customer as a strand of coffee coloured hair fell in front of her face. She brushed it away and glanced up at the crowd ahead of her, locking eyes with the tall man standing near the back. Her lips bowed into a soft smile, and she looked away, fighting the flush rushing to her cheeks. His icy eyes were piercing through his round tortoiseshell glasses and his dark waves were mussed from the hat she presumed he was wearing before he ducked into the warm bakery. Rhonda twirled towards the bright display case, her footwork a delicate choreography, sliding a golden croissant into another waxy bag and handing it to the patient woman who smiled warmly in return.
Rhonda tried not to notice him again and fought against the anticipation that bloomed in her chest. He would be at the front of the line eventually. She couldn’t look for him again. Taking a damp, crumpled bill from a young woman with hollow cheeks, Rhonda accidentally swept the crowd again. When she found the tall stranger, which was not a difficult task in the tiny bakery, she was looking down the barrel of a gun.
He fired a single bullet with a deafening blast. Blood splattered on the counter and Rhonda’s body met the cold tile with a decisive thud. By the time the customers began to wail in alarm and look frantically around the bakery, the door was swinging closed with a loud and resolute snap. The tall, thin man was gone, leaving behind nothing but a cold draft and a lifeless body bleeding on the bakery floor.
Chapter 1: Rhonda, before.
Rhonda walked aimlessly through the crowded streets, bouncing between hurried pedestrians who offered no apology for setting her off balance. She wasn’t walking in any particular direction because she had nowhere in particular to go. Her hands dug deep into the pockets of her fraying green coat, and she shrugged her shoulders up to her ears to shield her neck from the breeze that picked up and calmed down trivially and often. The thaw of spring made the city smell bad, and Rhonda wrinkled her nose as the latest chill crept up her spine, squeezing her eyes shut as it wracked through her threadbare clothes. She meandered towards the edge of the crowd, having been jostled enough for one day, strangely and desperately wanting a break. Rhonda never wanted a break. Breaks gave her too much time to think.
Dismayed, Rhonda stood at the mouth of an alley beside the tall brick façade of a storefront. She would have nothing but time to think if she didn’t figure something out soon. The crowd moved before her like a wave of energy, waxing and waning with flashes of bright coats and the occasional boisterous laughter or argument between strolling people. Her gaze caught a bobbing fedora in the crowd, which stood out because the man that it sat atop of was astonishingly tall. As the fedora got closer, the wind rose and caught its brim, prompting a large hand to clamp it back down. The fedora wove to the edge of the crowd, closer to Rhonda. The brim was pulled down over the man’s face. The man was muttering at the ground. Finally, Rhonda thought, someone who looks like they’re having a worse day than me.
Closing her eyes and resting her hand against the crumbling bricks, Rhonda tried to think about anything other than her predicament. She thought of the churning river from her childhood, the one that threw a sweet breeze that never smelled of sewage and rot. She thought of how the curtains would billow in the breeze at her mother’s house, the windows always cracked open the moment that the temperature reached above zero and then thrown open the moment summer arrived. She thought of the warmth that poured from the open oven when her mother baked biscuits. Rhonda sighed, her heartbeat slowing for the first time that day. She even smiled to herself, not caring if anyone in the crowd thought her crazy for doing so.
Her moment of peace didn’t last because she was interrupted by a solid collision, a body crashing into hers head on from the crowd and sending her sprawling on her back in the alley. Her tailbone took the brunt of the fall, and she struggled to sit, seeing nothing but a fedora bobbing away. The man looked over his shoulder and smirked. I can’t believe that I just made that man’s day better, Rhonda thought, embarrassment and anger drawing blood into her cheeks.
She stood, brushing off her long, thin skirt, twisting around in an ill-fated attempt to see the mud smeared across the fabric. Her fingernails dug into her palms, and she willed the thick teardrop welling in the corner of her eye not to fall. It couldn’t fall. That’s what the man in the fedora would have wanted, Rhonda told herself. Twisted bastard. Debating her next move, Rhonda watched the bodies whirring past on the busy street. She turned away. The pedestrian traffic was a sore reminder that everyone in this city had more purpose than she did. Her heart clenched suddenly, as though trying violently to make its presence known, and the thick teardrop fell. Just when she managed to forget that she was broken-hearted, her body reminded her.
Dazed by the pain in her chest, the pain that clouded her vision, Rhonda glanced around helplessly. The breeze picked up again and a shiver wracked through her body. She thought about curling up in the alley, knees scrunched to her chest in fetal position, letting the pain in her chest wash through her. Letting her heart-break tear her down to her knees. She was tempted to wallow in it, to succumb to the life of a back-story-unknown crazy person in the dingy alleys of the city. Rhonda knew that she wouldn’t survive long in such conditions. But maybe that would be for the best, anyways, Rhonda thought to herself as emotion swelled in her chest with a frightening finality.
Throwing a last glance at the hustle of the street, Rhonda crept further into the alley as another thick tear fell. Her feet were heavy, and she realized that she would have to sit soon and wait for the pain to pass. Just as she was about to sink to the ground, a warm glow from down the alley flickered. She staggered towards it, her teeth gritted in determination, hand pressed firmly against the left side of her chest. Black blotches taunted her vision, dancing across her view like a cruel joke. Struggling to draw trembling breaths, Rhonda counted the steps. One, she wobbled. Two, she winced.
Slowly, the light came closer, and she reached the door. Clasping the brass doorknob, she fell against the heavy panel and collapsed onto the tile floor that was painted in warm light. “Enid,” Rhonda whimpered, her voice strained. Her cold cheek pressed against the frigid tiles. They were a soft yellow colour, and although they were smattered with tracked-in mud, all Rhonda could think of was beaten butter in her mother’s bakery bowl. All the best recipes started that way. The sweet scent of baking drifted over Rhonda and she didn’t know if the aroma came from her memories or heaven.
The mocking black blotches consumed her vision and her world went dark. Rhonda knew that people could die from a broken heart: her mother was proof. Rhonda also knew that she had to be stronger than her mother was: if not for herself, then for her child.
Chapter 2: David, before
Morning broke in the slums of the city with the sounds of screeching voices, wailing babies and clanking pans. David peeled his face from the flea-bitten pillow, snapping into a seated position and looking around the tiny room with wild eyes. The world was blurred, a smudge of light and vague colour scrambled in his brain. Grey light streamed through the dirty window, illuminating a burly man sleeping on his back atop a small mattress, mouth open to reveal foul teeth, snoring like a freight train. David’s clothes were soaked in sweat, and he pinched his cheek to remind himself of reality. Shit. Another nightmare, he thought. That makes four this week.
In David’s nightmare, there was nothing. He absorbed the darkness of the room behind his closed eyelids, laying solidly in an echoey abyss. David would listen to the taunting snap of a belt getting closer, voices from his childhood, his brothers… And, worst of all, the unmistakable voice of his father, urging him deeper into the darkness. David would thrash on the mattress, trapped in his vulnerability, trying to escape the inescapable. David hoped that the dream was an overreaction, but at his core, he knew that the dream was a prophecy. The gradual loss of his vision hadn’t bothered him when he was younger, but now, living as an impoverished 24 year old man who will soon be blind, he was terrified.
David searched for his bag, feeling his way to the edge of his bed. It was a beaten-up satchel he’d lifted off an old man who slept upright on a bench in the park with his head tilted back. He’d felt bad at the time, but more desperate than anything. The old man was wearing a nicely made hat, anyways. David was sure that he would manage to afford a replacement bag. He rubbed his eyes, hoping that his vision would clear soon.
The leather satchel was worn in all the right places and flopped open easily. Pulling it onto his lap, David began his morning inventory. He prayed silently that the burly man would stay asleep, deftly swinging his legs over the side of the mattress so he could sit in an awkward crouch. He didn’t feel like fighting today. David pulled a dog-eared notebook from the bag with gaunt fingers, placing it beside him on the mattress. Then, a crumpled bill. He hoped another would follow but knew that another wouldn’t. He’d spent his last bill yesterday when the growling in his stomach grew louder than his thoughts. Oh well, he thought. This’ll get me into the pub. He smoothed the bill over his knee, folded it in half, and shoved it into his pocket. David wouldn’t risk taking the other items out of the bag. He kept his fuzzy gaze on the sleeping man as he slid his hand back into the bag, tracing smooth and rough textures until he was sure he hadn’t been robbed in his sleep. David was feeling more vulnerable by the day.
Dragging his socks across the dirty floor, David found his shoes and slid them on. He threw his satchel over his shoulder, walking cautiously towards the door. It was opposite the window, which made it easier for him to keep track of his whereabouts in the room. David leant heavily on the railing on his way down the steep stairs that fell from the landing to the entryway. For all the commotion outside, the building that housed the room he had found for the night was quiet. He ducked out onto the street, into the chaos, his eyes trained on the ground.
Small, decrepit houses lined the street. They leaned against each other stubbornly, fighting for space in the crowded slum. Some buildings were taller than others: the only indication David had that it might be a place with a room to rent for a night. There was no signage in this part of the city; only struggling people trying hard to struggle less than their neighbour. The wind picked up and shot through the street, rustling the garbage that settled in the gutters. David picked up his pace, gritting his teeth wilfully against the cold that clawed at his collar.
He took a familiar right turn at the nearest intersection. At this point, his days had become basic, blind choreography. Wake up. Try to remember where you fell asleep. Find the pub. Don’t get lost, or you’ll never be found. David didn’t have to recite the routine anymore. It quickly became entrenched in his being, his only purpose, after he could no longer read through the thick haze that fell over his sight. What was once a predicament was now a way of life. David tried to tell himself that he was resilient to adapt like this. He was getting by, after all. He was still alive, and that was saying something. Even with his vision waning every day, he still managed to outlive his brothers.
Sometimes, it was hard for David to find the pub in the morning. The loud laughter that spilled out from dusk until dawn had been quieted by 9 a.m., for there were still respectful working men who spent their midnights with a bottle or two. David listened for the soft din, the clanking of glassware that gave the pub away. If that didn’t work, he would squint and look for the green and white striped canopy that protruded from the façade year-round, snow, rain, or shine.
When his ears failed him, David strained his gaze. He counted two-hundred paces from the intersection, but he didn’t know if he could trust his counting or his memory after the drunken stumble home the night before. David’s toe caught on a rise in the sidewalk, and he tripped, nearly losing his balance and falling on his nose.
“Filthy drunk,” someone mumbled. It was a woman’s voice, and the bright colours of her presumably fancy outfit confronted David. She swept past, her expensive perfume scattered by the breeze. David swallowed a pit of emotion.
It was easier for him to be a man who was stumbling drunk than a man who was stumbling blind. David caught sight of the striped canopy straining in the wind and tried to forget the disdain in the woman’s voice. Nothing that the warm embrace of the pub can’t fix, David told himself in an effort to be cheerful. He couldn’t conceive a single other option. Life is about purpose and circumstance, he thought, inconspicuously trailing a hand against the wall on his right as he approached the pub. My circumstances have simply stolen my purpose.
Grasping the door handle, he let himself across the threshold, stepping over the door frame carefully. He had tripped over it many times before, so this exaggerated step became a part of his choreography. Don’t get lost, or you’ll never be found, and, for God’s sake, step over the door frame of the pub.
“Good morning, David,” a deep, tired voice grumbled. A hulking, recognizable blob appeared before David.
“G’morning,” David responded brightly, pleased with himself for finding the pub. “What’ll this get me?”
He rustled in his pocket, holding out the folded bill.
“You’ll be nursing today,” the barkeep scoffed, yanking the bill from David’s clammy fingertips. “Make your way to the bar, then,” he said, a hint of pity in his voice David tried to ignore.
Settled on his stool and staring blankly at the sparkly array of bottles behind the bar, David took a small sip from the glass the barkeep slid in front of him. It burned down his throat, spread through his chest, and settled warmly in his stomach. He released a long exhale, seeping into the quiet reprieve of his drink and his pub. David dragged a rough knuckle across his eyelids, willing his world to sharpen before him. When he was disappointed, he cheered himself up with another sip.
A whoosh of cold air snaked through the bar and someone entered, audibly scuffing the toe of their shoe against the doorframe. David tried not to smirk. He shouldn’t derive joy from someone else’s misfortune. I’m going to be a better man today, he thought to himself, as he did every morning.
The barkeep didn’t greet the person who entered, which struck David as odd. This small pub was a place for recurring characters. While he didn’t make a habit of socializing while he drank, David had overheard enough conversation to predict who would enter the pub, when, and why they were drinking. The barkeep muttered something indecipherable, and David rubbed his ear, paranoid that his hearing would go next. His decay felt inevitable.
A very tall figure slid onto the neighbouring barstool and David fought a prickle of annoyance. Mornings belonged to him here, and anyone who came in before noon knew to sit at least four stools away. Anyone who came here knew not to approach David, to wait for David to approach them. He could be cross when he wanted to be.
“Good morning, David,” said a smooth voice. David startled, squinting at the figure next to him. The door opened again and a regular slipped in, flashing stale morning light into the bar. In the brief illumination, David could vaguely discern the silhouette of a fedora.
“Who are you, and what do you want?” David barked, arranging his face into a sullen grimace. He learned early on that he needed to be aggressive with the men at the bar. He wore his bad attitude like a veil. David found it easier to be perceived as an asshole than to be perceived as vulnerable, or worse, pitiable.
“Who I am is not important, and it’s not about what I want, it’s about what you need,” the quiet voice soothed. “You’ll be blind very soon, David, and what I have in my pocket can fix it. You can be a new man. I can bring your vision back.”
“Get the hell away from me,” David seethed, his expression souring as he wondered what kind of cruel joke this was and who put this fedora-clad man up to it. “And don’t pretend that you know how to fucking fix me,” he growled.
“One favour, and the world is yours again,” the man said, sliding a small bottle full of clear liquid across the counter and pulling a smudged pair of tortoise shell glasses from his pocket.