A Short Story by Charlotte Cherne
Madison slammed against the metal turnstile, spilling iced macchiato on the cuff of her white blouse. She swore and shook her wrist. White was asking for it. At the end of the day there would no doubt be another stale stain or two dotting the front. It was unavoidable.
The ‘L’ was arriving in eight minutes. Madison wandered to the back of the raised wooden platform where the mid-morning sun pitched its white light. Down in the streets, seasoned Chicagoans rushed about their business, ignoring the red hand of the crosswalk signal and dodging the riders who whizzed by on blue Divvy bikes. Horns blared, voices shouted, crashes of construction ricocheted off concrete and steel. Madison, sipping on the green straw of her iced coffee, felt the pulse of the metropolis from her perch on the platform. She used to tell people she was from the city, but that wasn’t technically true. She’d lived two hours south in a small town no one knew.
Now, she not only resided in a place anyone could recognize, but she lived downtown in the beating heart of the city. In the severely suave neighborhood of River North where art galleries and sleek furniture showrooms tended to the chic. She’d moved in with her fiancé and Dennis their Dalmatian at the beginning of summer into a modern, two-bedroom loft style apartment on the twenty-seventh floor of a high rise. The view off the balcony still gave her vertigo, but Luke and Dennis loved it.
Luke was her fiancé. Madison loved saying the word: fiancé. She lived with her gorgeous and brilliant fiancé whose promotion at the firm resulted in the River North abode. They would be married in less than a month—an emerald and gold late-summer wedding— and then they’d embark on a honeymoon that Luke promised would be perfect. She loved how romantic he could be. She still thought it was fate how they’d met—through Luke’s cousin, her college roommate.
Madison shook her iced macchiato, rattling chunks of ice free from the bottom. She loved the feel of the cold plastic cup in her hand, specifically the left. The hand with the finger that wore the ring. Tiffany. Only one carat, but with two types of diamonds—white and pink. Her fiancé had done an impeccable job.
She turned around and scanned the platform to see if anyone was admiring her ring from afar, but no luck. Everyone had eyes glued to glowing screens—everyone except the homeless man sitting on a nearby bench. Madison frowned at the brown brittle beard sprouting from the man’s oily face and at the tattered army jacket hanging loosely from his jagged shoulders. Bulging black trash bags surrounded his feet. He stared at the floor, coughing incessantly, shaking a ripped Styrofoam cup at no one in particular.
A train approached, but it was the wrong line. Madison tapped her foot. She didn’t want to be late for the Swedish massage Luke had booked for her spa day. It was a “just because” gift. He was always giving her “just because” gifts, like the tickets to Hamilton for her and her friends, or the all-day shopping spree at Bloomingdales with a personalized stylist, or Dennis her beloved Dalmatian. Never in her dreams had she imagined she’d find a man like Luke. Her own dad had left when she was thirteen and started a whole new family. But Luke, her fiancé, was different.
The homeless man, still coughing and sputtering, grabbed the trash bags and stood up. He shuffled to the edge of the platform, leaving a half-full plastic water bottle behind on the bench. Madison wanted to sit down, but didn’t want to go near the area the man had coughed all over.
The train screeched to a stop and Madison watched the homeless man hobble aboard. She briefly thought about telling him that he’d forgotten his water bottle; he obviously needed something to drink with that thick, sticky cough.
The doors remained opened for a few seconds. Madison took a tiny step forward, but then stopped. She was afraid to get sick, plus it really wasn’t any of her business. It would be best if she stayed away.
The doors slid closed and the train rumbled forward. She shook her iced macchiato and scanned the platform for admirers.
Aaron couldn’t shake the damn cough. He’d been sick for a few weeks now, and the coughing fits weren’t letting up. He didn’t have any meds—meds cost money, something else he didn’t have. Clutching the metal bar in the train with one hand, he rattled the few coins in his cup with the other and thought about the thirty bucks tucked safely in his sock. He forgot a lot of things since the war, but he tried not to forget the money. The war was different; he could never forget the blazing desert wasteland crawling with goddamn towelheads. No, he would never forget those vermin.
But where was his water? Aaron bit the rim of the Styrofoam cup with his teeth and used his hands to check the deep pockets of his jacket. The jacket, an army camo print, had an American flag patch sewn onto the sleeve. He was heading up north to the shelter to trade some other clothes, but he’d never trade the jacket. Even though it was ripped and dirty, he wouldn’t part with it.
Aaron frantically searched his pockets.
“Goddamn water,” he snarled through Styrofoam. “Where’d that goddamn water get to? Where is it? Goddammit, where is it?”
Passengers glanced up from their phones. Aaron burst into another coughing fit. His cup dropped to the floor and coins spilled out, escaping under plastic seats and between scuffed shoes. A woman stood up and moved to a seat further away.
Traitor, Aaron thought as he bent over to scoop the coins up from the ground, his fingers brushing against hardened black gum. She didn’t know what he’d done for this goddamn country, what he had to do, what he’d seen. She hadn’t had to watch as her four best friends roasted to death in an overturned Humvee that’d struck an IED. They were the ones who protected her freedom to change seats, to even ride the train alone.
The train shuddered to a stop at Belmont and Aaron, still muttering under his breath, shuffled off with his trash bags and cup.
An ambulance drove under the platform, siren blaring. Car horns honked in response. People yelled and laughed in the streets. Aaron dropped his bags and covered his ears. He got the jitters and sweats whenever anything was too loud, which was all the time in the city.
A billboard on the platform advertised vacation deals for Palm Beach, Florida. That’s where he should go. To the sunshine, beaches, and babes. What more could anyone want?
Water. That’s what he wanted. Aaron left the platform and went down to the street. Cars and people rushed past. He stayed to the side, but didn’t have to avoid the people; they avoided him and his trash bags all on their own.
He walked a few blocks until he found a convenient store. There was less than a dollar in his cup, not enough to buy a new bottle of water. He’d have to break into his emergency sock stash.
Another coughing fit struck outside of the store. Aaron bent over and coughed on the sidewalk. His whole body shook and his chest tightened. He tasted metal.
“Excuse me?” A voice said from behind.
He whisked around.
It was a brown boy. A goddamn towelhead.
“You look like you could use this.” The boy held out a bottle of ice-cold water.
“Daniyal, what are you doing? Get back in here!”
Daniyal put the bottle of water on the ground next to the homeless man’s feet. The man glared at him and didn’t take the water.
Daniyal rushed back inside the convenient store. His father stood behind the counter with his hands on his hips, his bearded face clouded in a scowl.
“What did you do that for?” His father asked.
“The homeless man… well… he needed help.”
“We do not give away merchandise here. Who do you think pays for all this, eh?” His father gestured around the small convenient store as if it were filled with priceless goods instead of cheap junk food and neon lottery signs. “How am I ever to trust you to take over the store when I am gone? Do not ever do that again!”
“He could not breathe,” Daniyal explained.
His father reached over the counter and slapped him across the face.
“Do not question me! You should show respect for your father.”
Daniyal did not move. He barely flinched at the slap.
“Now, take this package to the post office,” his father instructed, handing him a large brown box. “I cannot take it myself and trust you with the store. Not after that.”
Daniyal picked up the package and left. The homeless man was gone, and so was the water. He’d seen the man through the window. Seen him having some sort of coughing fit. His father had not seen; his father was wrong. The man needed help. And why should the man go without water? They had plenty.
Daniyal was glad to get away. He didn’t want to take over the store from his father, not even for an afternoon. He didn’t want to sell stale sandwiches and liquor. But his father wouldn’t listen. His father told him that the store was his future. It was a form of security in a dangerous world, like how they spoke English instead of Arabic, even when it was just the two of them. Their native tongue always drew suspicious looks. His father wanted to blend in, he wanted to run the store and make his own way. He wanted to live the American dream.
But it wasn’t what Daniyal wanted. Music was what he wanted, what he craved, though he could never tell his father that. His father would take Daniyal’s laptop away if he knew his son “wasted” so many hours a night piecing together electronic playlists. But it was what Daniyal loved, what made sense in all the chaos.
Daniyal balanced the package in one hand and dug into the pocket of his jeans for his phone. He texted Rob and asked if he could pick up bud. Daniyal had saved for a month to buy an ounce—enough to inspire the rhythms for his next two-hour mix. He hadn’t gone to the movie theatre or arcade with his friends. He’d stayed at home, collecting the sounds that could drown out his father’s demands and concerns about the store.
Daniyal walked down Belmont. A slight breeze knocked free several golden leaves from a nearby tree. They fluttered down in the sunlight. It was a soft image, a melody like those produced by piano trance music. It was natural and hypnotic, unlike his father’s store. The store was house music, and not the good kind. It was the cheap beats they replicated on the radio. Unoriginal, predictable, boring. His father was drum and bass—intense and furious.
A woman walked up the street towards Daniyal. She had shining black hair, bright red lips, dark eyes, and muscular legs shaped nicely in tight workout leggings. Hot pink earbud cords bounced off her black sports bra with each step. She looked like she would be chillwave, dreamy, sensual, synthesized.
She met Daniyal’s eyes with her own, and then slid her gaze to the brown box in his hands. She instantly turned, checked the street, and jogged to the other side.
Daniyal shook his head and kept walking.
Maybe she was house music after all.
Wendy was not a racist. She wasn’t, really. She’d voted for Hillary and she’d participated in the Women’s March. But a Middle Easterner carrying a suspicious brown package was concerning. There were signs all over the place warning to keep a look out for such things. Everyone was capable of doing bad shit, and some were more capable than others. She wasn’t scared of him, of course, she was just being cautious. She could take the wimp if it came to physical combat.
She took out her iPhone to check the time of her next Crossfit class.
There was a text from Luke.
Wendy had met Luke at Crossfit a couple months back. He’d signed up for her class and they’d struck up a flirty conversation during the five-minute resting period between each dumbbell snatch. It was his first week at Crossfit. A newbie.
Wendy was a certified trainer. Her body fat was at twelve percent. She wanted to get down to a crisp ten by the end of the year. It was her goal, and she’d complete it. Luke started off around twenty percent, which wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t great either. She said she’d help him make meal plans. Then one thing led to another, and soon they were fucking in the trainers’ locker room after each session.
She’d known he was engaged, but it hadn’t bothered her. In the end, everyone was responsible for their own choices.
She texted back that she’d be there soon, and then ordered an Uber. She’d make it back in time for the next class. In the meantime, she’d get another workout in.
Wendy liked Luke. He was charming and cute, but she’d never want to be with him. She just wanted to fuck him. Plus he seemed like he’d never had the chance to be a dom. Wendy was not a sub by any means, but she got a kick out of training Luke to be more assertive during sex. She’d break it off once it got too complicated. Finding someone new wouldn’t be an issue. She had twelve percent body fat after all.
The Uber pulled up. Wendy scanned the streets one last time before getting in.
Ora craved a Big Mac and a Diet Coke. She’d been driving over six hours without a break. Her stomach kept rumbling. She’d chosen this passenger because she was heading south to River North, close to the McDonald’s on Clark, and near the restaurant where Dem worked. She’d eat in the parking lot, shut her eyes for an hour or two, then head back out.
The passenger got in the car.
“Are you Wendy?” Ora asked.
“That would be me,” the woman replied.
“Heading to the apartments on Kingsbury?”
“Alright. You’re my last pick up before lunch. Can’t wait to get myself a Big Mac.”
The passenger smirked, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she pulled out her iPhone and started texting. Music blared from her pink earbuds.
That’s okay, Ora thought. We ain’t gotta talk. Most passengers ignored her anyway. There were some who’d ask her questions about the city, try to be polite, but most didn’t. She liked the quiet ones better anyhow; that way she could focus more on her stories.
She put an earbud in and hit play. Her obsession this week was another podcast that investigated superstitions, monsters, and hauntings. The episode Ora was listening to was about déjà vu. Ora had déjà vu all the time. She told her twin brother Dem, but he never believed her. He told her she was crazy. But she had it. She knew she had it. Sometimes she’d see people on the street who’d be unloading a truck or walking a dog and she’d see the exact same thing—same people, same truck, same dog, later that same day—on another street. It happened a lot. But she’d seen a lot of crazy things driving around the city. It came with the job.
Dem said she saw crazy things because she listened to crazy things, but he didn’t see the city like she did. Ora drove all over Chicago every day. She saw how crazy people acted. It wasn’t just because she listened to horror stories. It was the way the world was.
Ora turned on the US-41 south ramp and drove past a homeless man wearing a camo jacket. Take him for example. He was hunched over at a crazy angle. He looked like he was either crying hysterically or coughing up a lung. Could be drugs, could be mental issues, or could be satanic possession. Ora didn’t know. But she did know that at one point in history, only one of those options would’ve made complete sense. It wasn’t her fault that she found the most dramatic explanation to be the most interesting.
She drove along the lake. She wouldn’t be surprised if some Loch Ness monster lived in its depths. No one had ever seen one, but that didn’t mean it didn’t exist. Big Foot, aliens, they could all exist.
Ora rolled the window down and let the breeze brush against her cheek. She hadn’t always been interested in horror stories and myths, only when she started driving for Uber. Her imagination hadn’t soared at her last job. Office Depot. Where every day blended into the next, one long chain of fluorescent lights and helping people pick out ink cartridges. Thirty-minute lunch breaks. Soul-sucking Black Friday shifts. Nah, she’d take conspiracies and freedom any day.
Five minutes later, Ora dropped her passenger off and headed to McDonald’s. She got her food from the drive-thru and pulled the car around to the parking lot. The smell of warm meat, onions, and pickles overwhelmed the car when she pulled the Big Mac from its bag.
She was about to take a bite when she saw the boy in a McDonald’s uniform across the parking lot. He quickly looked around the lot, then reached into his pocket and pulled out a small packet. He handed it to a man in a beat up Camry. The man handed back a few crumpled up green bills. Ora froze, the Big Mac halfway to her mouth. Déjà vu. She’d seen this before, but with her brother. He’d been the one in the car. The one itching to get his hands on the rock. The one who couldn’t say no. The one who’d OD’d and almost died.
Ora lost her appetite. She rolled her window down and threw the Big Mac on the asphalt. Sometimes she hated how the world was.
Rob slipped the money into his pocket and smiled. He’d just made two hundred and would get another three hundred from DJ Dickhead after work. Business was booming.
Nah, Daniyal was cool; Rob just liked messing with him. He’d listened to Daniyal’s mix and it was actually pretty good. He almost felt bad for ripping the little pussy off, but that was business. Daniyal only wanted bud anyway, not the hard shit like the crackhead in the Camry. So what if he charged a little extra? He had to make a living. Slaving at the Mac wasn’t enough.
He had five minutes left on his break. He pulled out a cigarette and sat on the curb facing the parking lot. Some fat bitch in an Uber was staring at him hard. There was a Big Mac smashed on the ground by her car. He took a drag and the woman drove away. The lazy bitch left her trash on the ground. She probably thought he’d clean it up. Fuck that shit, wasn’t his problem or his job. Nah, his job was to grill. He’d probably grilled over two hundred burgers that day. It was always the same shit. But he’d be out soon. Out for good. Out west to Cali.
The money was waiting in Cali for anyone to grab, and he wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. Not when he could make millions. It was all in the bud industry. That’s where the money was. He was sick of dealing the small shit; it was time to get serious, and he knew what to do. He’d mix the two things he knew best: burgers and bud. He’d call the place The Burger Joint, and sell both or combine the two to make one fat edible. Maybe he’d even have a food truck. The cooking wasn’t the hard part; making the cash to get to Cali was. But if business kept going the way it was going, he’d be heading out west in just a few months.
Rob finished his cigarette and threw the butt on the ground. He’d get to Cali one day and build his edible empire; he knew it.
He started to head back inside. A man dressed in Nike workout clothes and walking a large Dalmatian jogged across the parking lot. It was one of his regulars, Mr. Big Shot.
“Hey, man,” Mr. Big Shot said. “I want to pick up.”
“How much you need?” Rob asked.
Rob dug down into the inner pocket of his jacket and pulled out a small Ziploc bag.
“Sixty,” Rob said.
The man took out a leather wallet, counted out the cash, and handed Rob three crisp twenties.
It’s just too fuckin’ easy, Rob thought as he took the money and headed back inside.
Luke slipped the Ziploc bag into the pocket of his mesh workout shorts. He jogged across the parking lot, yanking Dennis the Dalmatian away from a mound of smashed burger meat. The last thing he wanted to deal with was dog diarrhea. Dennis had a weak stomach, but it seemed to have gotten better after Madison switched his dry food to organic and started serving him fresh veggies with every meal. Madison was a good nurturer, patient and sweet, a half-glass full kinda girl. She’d make a fine wife, and an even better mother.
Luke received a message on his Apple Watch from Wendy.
Where are you? I’m at your place.
He’d purposely taken the dog out for a jog around the neighborhood after he’d texted Wendy. The waiting would piss her off, get her worked up. She’d worry Madison would come home or that the doorman would get suspicious. Uncertainty and doubt would gnaw at her, but that’s what she needed. Luke was amused by her desperate need to have power; by the way she believed she was in control, especially during sex. He let her take the reigns, knowing that at any moment he could take over. She’d be pissed when he got back to the apartment, and have an overwhelming urge to assert herself. It was kinda adorable.
Luke paused at a red crosswalk signal and waited for the traffic to clear. A white Tesla purred past, weaving around cabs and Ubers as it sped down the block. He smiled and thought about how he’d soon be behind the wheel of his own Model S. He’d been on the waiting list for a couple of months, but he’d have the car by the time his honeymoon was over. It would be his own “just because” gift, like the bud he’d just picked up from the McDonald’s dealer. He knew the dealer ripped him off, but he liked how the fry cook thought an extra twenty bucks was scoring big. He imagined the fry cook was proud of his scheming. All Luke had to do was put in one phone call and he’d be fired. It was comical how that didn’t even occur to the cook. He thought he was getting the best of Luke, but Luke would always have the upper hand.
The traffic passed and Luke jogged across the street. He’d been working from home that morning on a big upcoming case and still had a few documents to look over. He calculated that Wendy would take forty-five minutes tops, and afterwards he’d send her on her way feeling good about herself. He’d finish his work, smoke a little, and take Madison out later that evening to the little French restaurant on the corner.
Dennis slowed down his trot. Luke checked the time on his watch and pulled the leash, but Dennis wouldn’t budge. Instead, he squatted in the middle of the sidewalk and emptied his bowels. Luke wrinkled his nose at the smell. When Dennis finished, Luke started jogging again.
“Hey!” Someone yelled from behind. “Pick up your dog’s mess, asshole!”
Luke kept jogging, pretending not to hear. After all, he couldn’t please everyone.
Demitri couldn’t believe his eyes. A massive Dalmatian had stopped right in front of the restaurant, right at the entrance, and was shitting all over the sidewalk. It wasn’t one or two solid drops, but a jet stream of shit. It oozed out of the dog forming a gooey puddle of yellowy brown. The dog took a few steps and the shit kept flowing, creating a syrupy trail. The owner, some douchebag in Nike workout clothes, pulled the dog along.
Demitri burst out of the restaurant and yelled at the man, but he just jogged away. He didn’t care. Demitri thought about chasing the guy down and pummeling his douchebag face in, but he didn’t have time. The restaurant was opening for happy hour in ten minutes and he still had to fill the ice buckets, set out the silverware, and light all the candles.
The warm, sour stench of shit hit him square in the face and he plugged his nose. Grumbling under his breath, he went back inside to get a bucket of soap and water. Who the hell did that guy think he was? But Demitri knew. The man was an entitled asshole who thought the world revolved around him. His messes were someone else’s problem to clean up. He could walk away, confident and uncaring.
Demitri wanted a cigarette, but he craved a bump. Just one. It’d relax him and take the edge off. He always wanted it, but even more when he was pissed off. That asshole, that fucking douchebag. Demitri should’ve stopped him. He should’ve smashed his smug face in.
His hands shook as he filled a plastic bucket with water. Maybe he could handle a bump. It’d only be one, just one.
Demitri reached into his apron’s pocket and took out a cell phone. He wondered if his dealer still had the same number.
There was a missed call from Ora, his twin sister, and a text.
Hey Dem. In ur hood nd thinkin bout u. Keep holdin strong.
Demitri smiled. Maybe Ora was right about all that supernatural shit she always talked about. He’d needed that message. Needed a quick reminder of why he stayed sober. Had she sensed that somehow?
He was back on track. Wash the sidewalk, fill the ice buckets, set out the silverware, light the candles. The itch was still there, but buried under all his other responsibilities. Thank you, Ms. Ora, my psychic sponsor, Demitri thought.
He picked up the bucket and went back out to the sidewalk.
The spa day had ended early. While revitalizing with a glass of cucumber water after her Swedish massage, Madison had received a call from her personal stylist at Bloomingdales who informed her that the bridesmaid dresses were finally in. Madison couldn’t wait to see them in the flesh, so she left before her facial, promising to return the next day. She’d taken the train back to River North where, feeling relaxed and centered, she decided to walk to the department store.
The day had grown hotter, but Madison enjoyed the warmth of the sun on her face. She lazily walked behind a group of women all dressed in yoga pants, white sneakers, and curved bill Cubs caps, each pushing an industrialized stroller before them. The pink babes within, with their heads lolling back and forth and spittle frothing at the sides of their mouth, stared at everything and nothing. Madison smiled and waved her fingers at them.
Suddenly, she stepped in something wet and felt herself slip. She tried to catch herself, but her foot slid out and she fell hard to the pavement.
A man carrying a bucket rushed out of a nearby restaurant. He stopped when he saw Madison on the ground.
“Are you okay, ma’am?” he asked.
Madison, dazed and embarrassed, chuckled and said she was fine. The man put the bucket down and helped her up.
“I was just coming out to clean the sidewalk,” the man explained. “Some idiot didn’t clean up after his dog’s mess.”
“Mess?” Madison asked. She turned around to look down at the back of her legs and saw that they were smeared with dog feces.
“Oh my god!” she screamed.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” the man said. “The nerve of some people, eh? Let me get you a rag to clean up.”
When the man returned with the rag, Madison wiped her legs with it, trying to clean up the worst of the mess. She thanked the man for his help, but knew a rag wouldn’t cut it. What she needed was a scalding hot shower and lots of soap.
She hurried the few blocks back to her apartment. The doorman greeted her when she walked into the lobby and asked how her day was going, but she only smiled in response and rushed to the elevators. She hoped Luke was busy with work and wouldn’t notice her early return. She smelled like dog feces and didn’t want him anywhere near her.
Music was playing when she entered the apartment. Luke normally worked in complete silence, so he’d probably finished for the day. The sliding glass door to the balcony was opened, letting in a gentle breeze. Dennis jumped up from his outdoor bed and rushed inside as Madison slid her sandals off and tossed them into the trash. He sniffed around her legs and tried to lick them, but she pushed him away.
“Bad dog,” she said.
Madison, her bare feet dirty and smelly, tiptoed across the hardwood floors to the bedroom.
At first, she couldn’t comprehend the sight she saw. It was Luke in their bed with another woman, but that didn’t seem to make sense. Luke was her fiancé. They were getting married in less than a month. They were going to have a perfect honeymoon. The bridesmaid dresses were finally in. He wasn’t like her father.
His face was buried between the woman’s legs and she was moaning with her eyes closed. Neither of them noticed Madison standing quietly in the doorway.
She slipped silently back into the living room, the woman’s moans growing louder and louder. She didn’t know what to do, where to go. Dennis had wandered back outside and was staring at her through the glass.
Madison went out to the balcony and leaned over the railing. She looked over the shining city, at the steel buildings and a train momentarily stopped on its tracks. Slowly, she worked the engagement ring off her finger and let it drop to the sea of concrete below.
Daniyal biked down Kingsbury, his headphones blasting music. He’d slipped away from the store and from his father, and was on his way to meet Rob. At a red light, he slowed to a stop, his head bumping up and down to the beats pounding in his brain. Out of nowhere, something hit him hard on the top of his head.
“Shit,” he spat, rubbing the spot where he’d been struck. A glare in the street caught his eye and he bent over to pick up the object. It was a ring. Daniyal looked around to see if anyone was searching for it, but the people on the sidewalks were focused on the small screens clutched tightly in their hands.
Daniyal held the ring up and saw the white and pink diamonds shimmer in the sunlight.
Car horns honked around him as the light turned green. He put the ring in his breast pocket and peddled forward into the heart of the city.
Charlotte Cherne is twenty-seven years old and currently lives in Chicago, Illinois with her girlfriend and their cats, Fury and Maya. She has a BA in English Literature from the University of California, Riverside and a MA in English from Bradley University. She is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Roosevelt University where she also works as an editor for the program’s literary magazine, Oyez Review.