Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 25

Sign of the Cross

I yawned, breathing deeply so I didn't fall asleep before I got there, but I felt an underlying stress accompanying my impending departure. It was often on my mind, especially concerning Donnie. 'Argyll had Adam now, and I was leaving the boys in better circumstances than they'd ever had. Their potential for success was unlimited with Argyll behind them.

'…But I'd found the boys, brought them home, orchestrated Argyll's custodial role. He'd never have gotten involved if I hadn't been there, but it led to happiness for him. I'd shared responsibility ever since they'd come to live with us. Did I have a responsibility to stay? People came and went from our lives all the time. It's a normal part of life, but these boys didn't have a normal life. Their life was better than it had ever been, but it wasn't normal and they'd never known stability. Would my leaving upset that?

'I didn't know that it was fair to the boys, or Argyll, or the programs that I'd been instrumental in creating, but I needed to get out of town before I ended up staying. I had to admit I liked the attention and the unexpected reward was even more attractive. These people were a whole lot smarter than I was and I needed to slip away before it was too late.

When I came, I had no idea how difficult it would be to leave. When I came it was a huge city with nothing friendly about it. Then, everything changed. One step at a time my voice was being heard and people responded. The seduction of power was powerful, although all I could do was rub shoulders with it, but that meant it was time to go. There was no point to my staying.

'There was no one that didn't want to help. They'd never been asked to assume any responsibility for gay kids who grew up every bit as detached from society as the rest of us. Alone, no one thought he could make a difference, but with someone telling them they could make a difference, they did, and that was what I came to do.

'I didn't do anything but deliver meals and run my mouth when appropriate. Anyone could deliver meals and I'd said all there was to say. I needed to get out of the way of the people who could get things done. That was simple enough and I could do that. I wanted to hang onto that thought. I needed to remember my life was with Carl.'

Turning the final corner, the building stood at the top of the hill, a five or six-block climb. As I looked up at it, it looked like home to me. 'It was a beautiful home and how lucky was I to live in a place like that? There had to be more to life than chance,' I reasoned, thinking of all the people who were there when I needed them over the past two years.

'What a find Argyll had been. I wouldn't have accomplished anything if it wasn't for him finding me.' I smiled and was warmed by the thought of him. 'What an amazing guy.'

A chill followed the warmth of my thoughts about Argyll. Maybe it was the rain and the coolness of the night, except I was sweating under my jacket. The hair was standing up on the back of my neck as I listened to a car turning onto the street behind me. It had been on the street I turned off of.

It wasn't the car. There had been lots of cars, all speeding past me. It was the sound the car made—a quiet sizzling of the soft spray a slow-moving car made on wet pavement. I'd heard exactly the same sound on the street I turned off of. It stayed a half a block behind me. It moved very slow. I'd heard it, but I was too preoccupied with my thoughts to realize what it meant. I then I turned the corner and so did the car and the sound it made.

Not paying attention, I failed to recognize the danger. It wasn't until it turned the corner behind me that I became aware of it. I listened to its slow-motion movement. It was the same car, moving at the same speed. The speed I was walking. It was following me and I was still over four blocks from home.

I looked up at our building as another chill shook me. Walking faster, it was just five more minutes. Why didn't I call Argyll? It had been a perfect evening, until now.

I didn't want to look at the car. I was too scared.

'Maybe they were lost? Maybe they were looking for an address? That was it, they were looking for an address. They weren't following me at all. It was probably my imagination. I had quite an imagination.

'It still hadn't passed me. It was still behind me by half a block, moving no faster than I was moving, but I walked faster. Maybe I can run for it? One more block and I'd make a dash for home. I'd catch them by surprise. I'd make it just inside the lobby and lock the heavy gate behind me. I'd be okay.'

'I remembered the car with the dark windows that picked Raymond and me up on Route 5 in Oregon two years before. I still saw that car in my nightmares. We'd been lucky to escape with our lives.' I shook my head to get it out of my mind. I listener for this car. It was still there. My legs shook as I picked up my pace. I could make it. It wasn't that far.

For the first time I noticed how dark it was. I'd turned onto a street with few working street lamps. If I'd been paying attention, I'd have stayed on the well-lit street, until the car got tired of following me. The low overcast blocked out any ambient light that might come from the moon and the stars or the buildings. I knew better than to walk up a dark street. I'd been so busy patting myself on the back that I wasn't thinking.

My footsteps were the only sound, except for the sound the car made, that overrode the sound of my pounding heart. They closed the distance between us. I wanted to run. I wanted to be home.

Why hadn't I called Argyll?

'Pass me, you asshole,' I thought, as I could taste the fear.

"Hey there," his voice broke into my panic.

I glanced to see what I was up against. I saw a guy leaning out of the car window, his arms on the door as he faced me. The car moved along beside me. I couldn't run now. I didn't want to show them I was scared. I looked up the street, looking for another human being, a car, anything. There was nothing.

"Don't play hard to get. You know, you're cute, and we're horny. I'll tell you what, how about you slow down long enough to blow us, and then, we can all go our separate ways? We'll like it, and you'll love it. What do you say, cutie?"

I was shaking and I ignored the advance. I could stop and do as they wanted, but it wasn't going to end well for me no matter what I did. The menace in his words was unmistakable. They'd take a blow job if I'd give them one but that's not what they were after. He smiled an evil little smile trying to make it look believable.

'Where was everyone?' I thought, looking up the hill for help. 'Argyll was always showing up to pick me up. Maybe he'd come, but he wouldn't go this way. He never came this way.'

I walked faster and didn't look again. Maybe I could outrun their car. It was about three blocks to home. My heart was pounding like a trip-hammer. 'Should I run? Should I wait until they made their move?

'Maybe I can make it. I'm a fast runner. I'll catch them by surprise and make a break for it.'

I'd always been fast. I could remember Ralph and me racing each other here or there, and I always beat him. 'Funny I'd think of Ralphie at a time like this. Ralph's dead.'

"You're not being very friendly, and if there is one thing I hate, it's unfriendly folks, you know?" the smile was gone as was the phony pleasantness in his voice.

I picked up my pace and the car stayed right beside me. I started to cross the next street.

'Two more blocks. I can make this. Two blocks and I'm home free. Two blocks and I'm safe at home. Just two blocks.'

I started to run. My heart crashed against my lungs. The car sped up, swerving into my path. The smiling face came directly in front of mine with the guys arms reaching out to grab for me.

I darted off to the right, down the cross street. I had let them turn me away from home. I came to an alley that would take me back in the right direction and I ran into it at full speed. 'They'd need to slow down to make the tight turn into the narrow alley. By that time I'd be coming out on the next block and I'd only be a block from home. I could make it now,' I thought before realizing I'd make a fatal mistake. 'Fuck!'

It had turned into a bad night. I slowed and came to a stop. The alley was a dead end, and I became resigned to whatever fate awaited me. It was ironic in a way. I was living the highlife, giving my wisdom on how I lived on the street and survived to tell about it. I'd gotten off easy when so many around me didn't. Perhaps this was always the fate that awaited me. I'd been spared to do a job and the job was done.

The walls on either side were solid brick. It was old brick with the wide groves and uneven bricks that had settled after so many years. There were no windows, no opportunity for escape, but I didn't turn around. 'Maybe they hadn't seen me turn into the alley.'

I listened to the sound of the car pulling across the alley. My heart quieted and my breathing slowed. The doors opened and then shut. I was trapped with them in the alley. There was nowhere left to run. All the oxygen was suddenly sucked out of the air around me. I couldn't breathe, my legs shook, and I was petrified. 'What did they want and what would satisfy them?'

"You could have been nice," the same malevolent voice observed.

'I wanted to be a writer,' I thought. 'How would I write this? Malevolent. Male violent. Maybe this is what I would write about one day. 'Would there be a one day?'

'Why me? What had I ever done to anyone? I hated violence. I was going to hate this more than most.'

"Turn around," he ordered, all pretence gone. "I want you to see it coming. Too bad it's too dark to see who it's coming from."

There were three of them. The speaker was no bigger than I was. It was too dark to see their features, but I'd remember them. The other two would remain anonymous in that instant, covered up with the darkness. It was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time with three people who meant to do me harm.

There was the sound of something being struck against the palm of the speaker's hand as he advanced. I did my best to keep a distance between us, backing slowly, trying to maintain some self-control. I didn't want to show them my fear.

In his hand was a sawed off ax handle. I'd seen one under the seat of every pickup truck back in Minnesota. They stayed about three feet apart as they advanced. It made escape impossible. In another moment or two my back would be literally against the wall.

As they moved forward, I continued backing up, looking for an opening that might allow me to escape. I halfway expected Argyll or Carl might show up at the last second to rescue me. I'd always been rescued before. There'd always been someone there for me to depend on.

"You faggots think you're better than us. If you'd been nice, we might have gone easy on you. Broke you a little, maybe, but you weren't nice, were you? Now, I'm horny and I'm mad, and those are a dangerous combination for you, sport. You do have a pretty mouth, but I can fix that for you," he said ominously in slow precise words, smacking the ax handle on his palm.

"You could ask us not to hurt you, you know?" he suggested.

I thought of Carl again. He could have disassembled these three in about ten seconds. I, on the other hand, wasn't a big guy. It's probably why I was backing up away from them in that alley, but backing up, being trapped like that, made me angry.

People had forced me to back away from who and what I was all my life. San Francisco was the only place where I hadn't continued backing up. For the first time in my life I moved full speed forward and I accomplished something good.

"You bastards are all sissies, you know? Aren't you going to beg us not to hurt you? I'd like that. Won't you beg a little?"

"Nobody to protect you this time," a second voice offered in a revelation I wasn't able to grasp at the time.

I didn't understand people who needed to hurt other people. I never understood hatred. What was the point? What did they get out of it? 'What did he mean? I didn't know these assholes. Could I have crossed paths with one of them before?' There wasn't any time for a lot of pondering.

The leader of the pack kept hitting his palm with the ax handle. They moved forward. I backed up. I felt the walls closing in on me. I didn't know how far back it was to the wall that would stop my retreat, and for some reason this had me think of Argyll and the story he told me about learning karate. I'm sure I smiled, letting that thought take my mind away from the inevitable. I'd taken enough karate to know how to drop kick a guys head nearly through a windshield up in Oregon.

It wasn't going to turn out well for me no matter what I did, and so I decided to stop backing up before I backed into the wall.

I stopped. They stopped.

"Oh, we're going to stand and fight, faggot?"

The word boiled my anger, especially the way he twisted it. I hated that word. I was a man and that insult was going to cost him. The deal was sealed.

I was never more aware. The wall was six feet behind me. I could feel the cool bricks on the walls towering above us. I smelled the moisture gathered near the sides of the alley. Water dripped off to my right, making a steady tapping sound as each drop collided with the alley. I noticed the uneven texture of the concrete under my feet. I'd never been more alive.

"Fuck you," I hissed, raising one leg and both arms, making God-awful noises an instant before I struck. I didn't need to see him as long as he kept running his mouth and he did. My entire being focused on precisely where the words were emanating from.

The sudden motion was masked by the disturbing noises that served to distract them for the instant it took me to get to him.

I brought my clasped hands down on where I thought his nose ought to be with all the force my body possessed. I was full of power and destruction as his nose gave way to the blow.

For one split second I heard someone else making a God-awful sound. For a millisecond my spirit soared. I was not afraid.

Then, the darkness in the alley came crashing in on me.

All awareness ceased.

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