by Noel Ace
The fog pulled in and Barry escaped. Out of his bathroom window he miraculously squeezed his 200-pound frame and dropped to the grass below his apartment. Only a two-story fall, Barry had made the jump without breaking any bones and then frantically darted up the slanted street in his black trench coat hoping he had been quiet enough not to have awakened the attention of the crowd forming outside his apartment door. Anyone seeing him run up this steep hill in the fog would think he were a San Francisco ghost running from a crime in his heart.
Looking back at the followers who surrounded his life and kept vigil at his apartment day and night, Barry knew that he had finally escaped the line of people who demanded to be touched by him, the block-long snake waiting to eat him alive.
"My God! When will they ever get a clue and find a real messiah?" Barry panted as he finally made it to the top of the hill. By instinct he could feel the sea stretched out from the bay, though Barry could not see it through the fog. The ocean breeze comforted him as he stood alone, unclear where to go or whom to turn to now that he was free from the grips of his confined life. He pulled his trench coat closer to his body and rushed forward, anxious to find a dark corner to hide in before anyone on the street spotted him and sideswiped his attempt at desertion.
But, it was too late in the morning to expect that the true commuter pedestrians of San Francisco would stay indoors on this day just because Barry needed his solitude. His life just did not work that way. People appeared transparent through the fog, rushing past him to jobs and responsibilities. Once, a couple of years back, Barry had been one of these strangers he saw scurrying past his shadow. But now his life moved against the foot traffic, against this bustle of the city. Instead, Barry ducked and hid in alleyways and took cover in the depth of closed storefronts, from the chance glance of a curious onlooker who might be looking for an unusual sight to liven up this Monday morning drudgery.
Too concerned for his own safety and nestled in the comfort of the fog, Barry did not see the man in front of him rollerblading down the hill at the same moment Barry stood on the sidewalk, deciding which direction to take.
"Hey, man! Watch it!" The well-built man's flight soon ended as Barry and he collided. The rollerblader flew a few feet in the air and fell to the pavement. "Jesus Christ. "What the hell are you doing, you jerk? You got right in my way!" Seeing the man spilled on the concrete ground scared Barry. He wanted to help the man but instead looked to the ground and pulled his blue snowcap lower on his head. With skates twisted into angry angles, the man sat on the pavement, bleeding from his elbows and knees. He examined his ankles; he gripped his thighs and threw his head back in agony as he struggled to bend his skinned joints.
Barry struggled with his instinct to bring this man back to balance while he moved closer to the victim bleeding on the pavement. "Hey, look. I'm really sorry."
Struggling to rise up from the concrete on his own without Barry's help created more anger in the man. "At least you could give me a hand."
Instead of giving into the man's wish, Barry backed away from this potentially dangerous scene and fastened every button on his trench coat. Hide as much of me as I can. Maybe he won't notice, Barry thought, struggling with his impulse to rescue the man from his pain.
Turning to run off and continue on his way, Barry stopped when he heard the steady anger in the man's voice. "Where you going so quick? Bastards like you think you own these damn streets. Just spill a man and run, you stupid freak." The man bent his body forward and sat on his knees. With full force and will power, the man rose up like a giant. Composure regained, this towering Cyclops searched through the fog for the nobody who had blinded his eyesight.
"I was... uh... just... uh...." Barry stumbled with his words, afraid to anger this man who could easily squash Barry like a bug. Becoming uncomfortable with the rock-hard stare the man gave him, Barry reached for the hood of his trench coat and put it over his head, bracing himself for the inevitable fight, since the man moved closer into Barry's space.
"I was just taking a walk," Barry mumbled, his eyes darting to all sides of this stranger. Just get away quick, now. Run straight into him if you have to.
"Hey, I know you...." The gravity of the hill interrupted the man, and the wind sought to drive him down to the pavement again. But, he held his stance, battling the pull with every expletive he knew. Now balanced on the street for the second time, the man came back to focus on the man in front of him and looked Barry full in the face, eyes widening in obvious acknowledgement. "Jesus Christ, it's you. I can't believe it. I was just on my way to see you," the man blurted out, like a nuclear factory horn warning of danger on the job. He automatically reached for Barry's hand. But, no such luck with Barry. He never shook hands with strangers he knew nothing about. Knowing so little bit about their past and their present health made the ritualistic greeting a danger.
"Nice meeting you. I was just on my way. Gotta go," Barry managed to say before the man reached out and grabbed the sleeve of Barry's coat.
"Look, I'm sorry. I know how busy you are, but you've gotta help me. It's my father. He's killing me. He's too much for me to hold inside. It's destroying my family." The man pulled and shook and clung desperately to Barry.
"Help me. You are the only one who can. The newspaper's all say you can cure any evil on this planet. If that's true, then I'm a definite candidate for healing." The man struggled to keep Barry from running off while Barry tried to free himself from the tight hold. "You are the messiah, praise you! I will give you anything you want -- my daughter, my BMW, my Victorian chateau in downtown -- if you would just please take my violence away."
"I'm sorry, but I can't help you today. I've gotta go. I can't do this anymore. This healing is just too much for one man." Barry pushed himself forward with all of his strength, freeing himself from the man's grasp but leaving his trench coat behind. Stripped of his coat, Barry stood with only his striped boxers and white tank top to cover the body he wished to hide. But for the condition of Barry's body, he could have been naked. He realized how hard hiding would be for him now that he stood out from the normal commuters rushing off to work. "One hour to myself for one day is all I ask," he said to no one specifically as he ran up the hill, again on his way to nowhere specifically.
As Barry reached the top of the hill and turned into an alley, a crowd stood in a pack, blocking his escape, angry faces showing them to be witnesses to Barry's heated argument with the rollerblader.
"Hey! What's wrong with you? That man needs your help." The crowd moved closer to him, jeering at him, showing their disappointment at Barry's unwillingness to work his magic. "Heal the ones you hurt." With the blader gaining speed from behind and the crowd pressing closer in front of him, Barry knew his opportunity to be alone today had blown away with the San Francisco wind, eaten away by the aggressive needs of the crowds that never stopped coming to see him.
"I just needed the day off. One day and then tomorrow I will be back to heal all of you." Barry stood, hands in pocket, eyes cast downward, caught in his followers' stares. Guilt racked his mind: What a selfish bastard I am. Can't even clean up my own messes. I can't stand to see that man's blood flow. For once Barry exposed his full body to the crowd that had only seen his media-fed heroic image on the front pages dressed in a purple sequined gown with the title of "Superstar" stitched on the back of his costume. Shivering, body tense, ready to run once the opportunity approached, Barry felt his pores open and his ink come alive as the wind continued its steady pace.
Barry felt the points of the lightning bolts on his chest as they moved and swirled in the wind. He could hear the gasps in the crowd, comments about the skeletons rising up on his skin, seeming to stretch in the morning dawn. Barry's adrenaline rush awakened the tattoos as the crowd circled him. Never before had anyone seen Barry's flesh up close. Sometimes even Barry forgot that demons adorned every inch of flesh on his body. Every evil spirit exorcised from his followers had planted themselves under Barry's skin, using him as their personal temple.
"My God! Look at them all!" one of the followers gasped. The colors on Barry's flesh swirled with movement as Barry shrunk under the lasers of the people's stares.
A man -- six feet, pot-bellied, and a cigar sticking out of his lips -- moved right into Barry's face and glared at him. "Who said you could have the day off, freak? We didn't." The crowd's hungry mouths opened and begged for fulfillment. The crowd's voices were indistinguishable to Barry; the crowd was like one brain with the same desire.
"Heal us! Touch us! Take our demons away!" they yelled in unison, the chant that normally sent Barry into a welcoming trance. But not today. Turning around, looking for a way out, Barry saw flailing arms in front of him, raised in the air in praise of their messiah, beckoning him to save them, desperate for his healing touch, desperate for his magic to take their pain away. Nowhere to turn as more of his followers joined the crowd and blocked his path of escape. Closer they pushed to the man who tried to fight their need for him until he had to kneel on the ground in front of them in beggar repose -- the only space left for him to breathe. Some day I will escape all this. Chanting mantras, dancing hands, snapping fingers calling on their heaven in the foggy sky, the crowd became lost in this rabid ritual.
"Give us relief."
"We need you."
"Touch us." The people begged, whined, pleaded.
One of the women in the crowd moved forward from the rest, unbuttoned her blouse, and revealed her chest to Barry's hands -- colors swirling in multiple dimensions in his palms, attracted to her closeness -- coaxing him to touch her heart as he had done for so many thousands in the city over the past year. "Please heal me. I won't do you any harm. Set your spell on me."
Knowing from past experience that he could not escape the crowd's aggressive nature when they were in the throes of passion as they were now, Barry tucked his hands between his legs and wrapped himself into a fetal position, letting the warriors on his skin protect him from this surging crowd. Axes raised, spears readied for bloodshed, Barry's demons raised themselves to the surface to protect this man they also saw as their savior.
As a last attempt, Barry yelled, "Please, just go away. All of you." He tried to push the woman away. The woman instead saw the ink designs stretching up the full length of his arm and immediately breathed onto the face of one of the warriors.
"My God! Look at you. You are so beautiful." Her eyes traveled further down to Barry's legs, his calves, each individual toe, back up to his chest, his other arm, every fold of his flesh. "Look at all these faces, these demons you have captured in your skin. How beautiful their darkness is." She looked at Barry's face and wiped away his tears. "Like silk you must feel. Let me feel you as you are, sweet one." She reached out to touch Barry's tattooed body. "Let me have some of your dark power, baby. Let me heal some of your wounds." She reached out for Barry as he recoiled, his voice begging her to give him the privacy he desired.
"Don't touch me. Please! Just leave me alone." As if they had heard an invitation instead of a rejection, the crowd as one creature reached out and stroked Barry's frame, felt his smoothness, felt its heat. Anonymous voices swept through Barry's buried ears.
"Yes... I can feel his magic in my veins."
"Oh yes, let my healing begin."
Violently Barry's body shook with each caress. The tattooed images on his skin came alive as the crowd dug deeper into his silky flesh. Barry surrendered the fight and curled himself into a tighter ball. The crowd continued to feel him, penetrate him with their need, and caress the heat of healing Barry offered like a sacrifice and once a gift to the citizens of San Francisco. Snarled, enraptured beasts enjoyed the stroking of his skin as Barry lay still, no longer trying to control the direction of his life on this day. His consciousness fully retreated into his own fog, and the crowd danced with the images tattooed on the flesh before them. The tattooed warriors readied themselves for a fight and rose up in caution at the crowd's aggression, but instead found themselves enjoying the faithful crowd's touch of admiration.
"My god, they are still alive within him; all those evil spirits took from others similar to us." The woman, bare-breasted, deeply breathing, reached inside Barry's white cotton tank top and felt the dominant tattoo on his chest -- the two-headed skeleton with a dead woman strangled in his fist.
"Oh, I like this one," she cooed. The tattoo swayed with her touch, and she quickly ripped Barry's shirt from his body to better feel the tat's full effect from her touch. The demon's spine arched, ready to pounce on her, ready to take his next victim.
"Amazing," she uttered as she pulled Barry's boxers to his knees. The creature's body extended down below the messiah's waistline, covering the man's privates and backside. Amassed in barbed wire and dripping of blood, the tattoo was becoming fully fleshed at this woman's provocative touch. I've got another fist to clench you in, this demon sneered through Barry's mind, ready to leap on this woman he saw as his prey. The woman reached between Barry's legs, hoping to get a rise out of the savior, but saw the tattoo she quickly had been playing with losing its three-dimensional shape.
"Ah, man. He's getting cold," the woman sighed, seeing the demon retreat into its line form. "He probably fainted or something." The crowd stopped probing Barry's seemingly lifeless body and rose up to move on its way.
"Where's the heat, now?"
"Damned burned out, messiah."
"He's no good to us now. He's cold as stone."
"Let's get out of here."
"Yeah, you're right," the woman, once so intrigued, buttoned up her blouse, sighed, and spit on Barry's face, leaving him for dead in the middle of the foggy alley. "Just when we were having some fun, he's gotta check out."
While talking rapidly of the miracle of healing they had felt through their bodies, the crowd moved onto the local park where a beating could occur, a purse snatching, or any form of excitement imaginable. They felt energized and alive, while Barry lay helpless in the streets, in the fog of his own coma, defenseless, ready for the taking by the next passerby to do what he wished to the city's messiah.
In the fog of this busy morning, foot traffic scurried along, downhill, uphill, and most people did not have time to stop and wonder why a crumpled form lay in the alley, naked, writhing in pain. They saw the tattooed man seemingly dead in the street, but this scene was nothing new to them. Most of the commuters had seen this type of scene before -- maybe on a different street with a different victim, who might be conscious and begging for help. But, work was work to the commuter moving on, not bothering to stop and call the police for the victim of the street. They kept their noses in their own business and cast their eyes to the ground while moving to the pace of the rhythm flowing through their headphones. Besides, the fog cast a spell over anyone who dared its thickness.
Most of all, it was comforting to the citizens of San Francisco to know that not much was new in the city today.
Story copyright © 1998 by Noel Ace <email@example.com>
Artwork "Ahhh, Esho Funi" copyright © 1995 by Eric Seaholm <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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