Penpals

Penpals

by

Phillip McCollum

A gunshot or a backfire?

Didn’t matter.

The odds were fifty-fifty in a Las Vegas ghetto east of the glittery Strip.

All that mattered was that it caused Chris Blankenship to contemplate the time projected across the ceiling by his alarm clock.

1:03 AM.

…and then…

1:04 AM.

…slowly followed by…

1:05 AM.

Sweat built up across every inch of his body. A brief wave of nausea threatened to send him head-first into the toilet, so he bolted up and rubbed his face. He reached across the nightstand to turn on the lamp, knocking over an empty Dos Equis bottle in the process. It thumped onto the carpet and rolled beneath his short twin bed.

Chris didn’t have to man the flat top grill or fry station until swing-shift, but sleep was a fading prospect.

He placed his feet on the ground and stood, thankful that the wave of sickness seemed to have passed. Like a cat that stops meowing and starts purring, it was as if his body recognized it was going to get what it needed. Still, he knew it was only momentary.

The walk to his studio apartment ‘living room’ was a short five feet. Chris leaned over the aluminum lawn chair propped in front of an old tube television and grabbed the remote control. The TV zapped to life. Lucille Ball was going on and on with a woman about tulips.

On the floor beside the chair, almost everything was in its place–a new needle, some cotton balls, a piece of kite string, his Mickey Mouse Zippo lighter, and a plastic bag holding a tiny black rock that resembled a candied fig.

Chris walked another four feet into the ‘kitchen’ and pulled out all three drawers, scouring every nook for a clean spoon. There were butter knives, forks, even cheap take-out chopsticks. But for the life of him, he couldn’t find one goddamn spoon.

His stomach lurched a little.

“Fuck!” he screamed. “Where the fuck are all of the spoons?”

He groaned and looked at a half-eaten can of Spaghettios with a utensil sticking out. He smiled and yanked it out, only to find another fork. The fork flew violently into the sink and the back wall almost took on a coat of Campbell’s red sauce before Chris calmed down, noticing the lid hanging on by a tiny strand of metal.

If he could carefully bend the edges and form a trough, it would probably work.

No, it would most definitely work.

He grabbed the lid, twisting it from the can when someone knocked on his door.

“Gah!”

The razor-sharp edge of the metal cut into his index finger. He jammed the bleeding appendage into his mouth. The taste of blood made him even more nauseous. He stood still and sucked quietly.

Anyone knocking on his door at this time of night had to be stoned off his ass or the world’s worst thief. It could have been a friend dealing with an emergency, but that thought was easily dismissed–Chris had no friends, and if he did, he would probably be the last person from whom they’d seek help.

He ignored the knock, hoping the idiot would go away. He quietly resumed his quest by pressing the edges of the lid against the counter until they bent in compliance, only taking a few seconds here and there to wipe the snot from his nose and the sweat from his forehead.

Another set of knocks. This time louder. More insistent.

As he pressed the lid into the off-white countertop tile, it slipped from his hand and fell onto the floor.

The knocking continued unabated.

“Go the fuck away, junkie!” he hollered at the door.

It had no effect.

Chris didn’t have the patience to deal with this. He stormed over to the door and peeked through the peephole to see who he was going punch out.

White light from the balcony lamp made Chris squint a little, but the knocking stopped and a woman looked back at him, somehow making direct contact with her hazel eyes. Black eyeshadow ran down her cheeks and her jet-black, pixie-cut hair was plastered to her head like she’d been standing in the rain. She wore an equally dark felt coat with high, pointed collars. The dusky shades stood in stark contrast to her pale and freckled face, not to mention the fact that it was a hot July night without a cloud in the sky.

Something about that face struck him as being familiar.

Was she one of the many neighbors that he’d mutually ignored over the six months he’d been living here? Maybe she was a regular customer at Burger City?

The somewhat anxious look on her face triggered an uneasy thought: Maybe she was another one of Marco’s customers and had trailed him here at some point. Maybe she really was here to take his meager supply.

“Christopher,” she said. “Open the door. Please.”

Chris’s lips parted. How did she know his name? He’d never given it to Marco. She had to have seen him working at the fast food joint. That’s the only place where his full name was in plain sight, pinned to his uniform.

“I don’t have anything you want,” he yelled through the thick wood. His fingers confirmed the deadbolt was turned and the chain was dragged across the track. “You’re wasting your time.” Beads of sweat built up across his forehead again. His chest ached. He wanted to turn back and look for the pasta lid, but her eyes exuded a sort of sparkle that hypnotized him.

“I’m not here to rob you.” She unleashed a cute smile and raised her small, white hands, rotating them in a Queen Elizabeth-style wave.

Chris felt his warm, putrid breath reflected back at him from the door.

“I’m here to help you,” she said.

The number of things telling him not to open the door were piling up, yet he felt his fingertips twisting the deadbolt knob. Maybe it was those kind eyes. Maybe it was the change in routine–the curiosity of it all. Nobody ever came to visit, and except for his parents who had since given up on any relationship, no one had ever combined the words ‘help’ and ‘you’ and sent them in his direction.

Chris swung open the door until the chain pulled taut. She stood at maybe five-five. The smell of wet dog drifted off her jacket. He looked down at her hands which were now hanging loosely and innocuously at her side, weapon-free.

“What do you want?” he said, making eye contact once more. He found he didn’t want to stop looking into those hazel marbles. They warmed him like a familiar blanket.

No, Chris thought. Like something better. Like the feeling of a speedball after the coke exits the system and the heroin eases the comedown. That erasure of energy replaced with pure tranquility. His mouth began to water and he craned his neck back quickly just to make sure the lid had not moved.

“It’s me. Melina.”

That name. He mouthed it silently. Sticky white stuff formed strands between his chapped lips as he tried to place it. Why did that name not just disappear into the ether, but instead bounce around his head looking for a patch of memory on which to settle?

“Why are you here?” he asked.

Melina focused her well-manicured eyebrows. “I’m here to help you.” She leaned onto her tippy-toes and tried to peek over Chris’s head. “Are you going to let me in or are you going to let me freeze on your doorstep all night?”

He found it hard to imagine her freezing on such a sultry night. The fears that she was another user returned. Maybe she thought she could exchange her body for some of his candy. Right now, Chris had only one thing on his mind and it wasn’t sex.

“I don’t need help,” he said. “You got the wrong guy.”

“Yes, Christopher, you do. Please, let’s just talk.” Melina crossed her arms and shivered, twisting her head around as if something were chasing her. “I don’t have a lot of time.”

Chris quickly shut the door and leaned his back against it. He could almost feel the pulsating heat of her presence on the other side.  Why was he so out of breath? Every hair on his body stood on end as he took a moment to think things through.

He eyed the half-bent lid sitting impatiently on the ground, imagining that he could hear it calling his name, taunting him like so many people he’d known in life. For some reason, he began to despise it just as he’d come to despise the people. His hands flew to his face. If he wasn’t adamant about keeping his nails clipped, he would have drawn blood with the forcefulness of his grip.

I swear I don’t know her, yet there’s something…

He grunted in frustration and turned around, fumbling the chain out of its track.

As the door swung open, Melina smiled widely showing beautiful white teeth. If she was a junkie, she’d be one of the rare few that kept up her dental hygiene.

“Thank you,” she said, stepping inside.

Chris wasn’t sure what to do after he shut the door. His place was barely accommodating enough for him, let alone guests. All he had to offer was a practically empty pantry, a messy bed, and a single lawn chair.

Shit.

He panicked and lunged for a dish towel sitting on the counter.

“I don’t normally have company,” he said, rushing toward his exposed paraphernalia, covering the gear in a single fell swoop and scooping it up into his arms. “Let me just straighten up a little.”

Melina stood in front of the door. Chris could feel her watching him zip back and forth. It made him uncomfortable, but he did his best to ignore it. As he placed the towel in a corner of the room and turned around, Melina was holding the metal lid between her fingers. She extended it toward him.

“Oh, thanks,” he said, grabbing it. “I, uh…was just making dinner.” He nervously tossed it into the trash can, wincing as he did so.

Her mouth never moved, but her eyes said that he was a bullshit artist and they both knew it.

Why did I let her in here?

Now, they stood awkwardly while the I Love Lucy theme song played in the background. Melina stepped up to him, licked her thumb, and rubbed it over his cheek.

Besides the microscopic tremors occurring over his entire body, he did not move. The wet-clothing smell was now combined with that of a floral shop.

She pulled back and said, “You had some blood there.”

Blood? Chris had forgotten all about his finger. The pain came throbbing back as he remembered touching his face. He grabbed a napkin that was sitting beside the sink and wrapped it around the cut.

His impatience grew as his nervousness grew.

“I’m sorry–Melina? I feel like I know you, but I can’t place you. What is it you think I need help with at one o’clock in the morning?” As much as he was intrigued by her mysterious presence, he was wondering how quickly he could fish the lid out of the trashcan and unbundle his kit after she left.

She reached into her coat.

Idiot. She does have a gun and she’s here to take my shit. She was only waiting to get inside.

Chris’s current foggy condition left him debilitated and still wondering if he could knock her down before it was too late, when her hand emerged gripping an aged, yellowed envelope.

“Here,” she said. “Maybe this will jog your memory.”

Chris hesitated for a moment, but reached for the envelope and read the front. His name and boyhood address were at the top left. The name Melina Scotti was written in the middle just above an address in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was all in Chris’s handwriting.

He looked up at her.

One of her canine teeth peeked out slightly from her close-lipped smile.

So familiar.

“Open it,” she said.

Chris opened the unfastened flap and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was the same ruled yellow notepad paper his mom use to bring home in bulk from her office job. It was stained on the edges and the folds had been carved in place with time, but just like on the envelope, he recognized the handwriting as his own.

As he read through the contents, it felt like cracks spreading rapidly across an aged dam. Fluid visions began to spout until the cement crumbled away and a forceful wave of memories came rushing through. He’d written about how he’d found an abandoned Redline BMX bike and how he’d fixed it up, but forgot to tighten the handlebars to the frame. They came unhooked as he launched off a dirt jump, but he survived–just a few scratches. He’d asked if Melina had gotten the new pair of L.A. Gear shoes that she kept pining over. Then there was a joke about him sneaking into a suitcase at the airport so he could fly out to Pennsylvania and meet her in person.

The letter was dated after his signature: Christopher Blankenship, August 13th, 1990.

Chris was in the seventh grade then. He had been paired up with Melina through a pen pal program that his teacher, Mrs. Baker, had introduced to their class. He recalled being utterly thrilled at the notion of talking with someone on the other side of the country, especially since almost every kid within his limited world only seemed intent on kicking his ass or shunning him entirely.

They’d exchanged Polaroid photos when they first started writing. It was those hazel eyes which he remembered most.

A lump developed in his throat. He whispered her name and she nodded slowly. There was a list of more important, more relevant questions he could ask, but only one sprang immediately to mind.

“Why did you stop writing to me?”

The words barely squeaked through. It had been nearly fifteen years, but Chris felt like he was jumping back into a conversation that he’d left only moments ago.

“I didn’t, Christopher.” A subtle spasm crossed her face. “I swear I didn’t. Things got bad.”

“How bad could it have been for you to just cut me off–”

She put her finger to his lips. “Bad. I’d written more letters, but they never made it to you. Just like this one never made it to me.”

Chris frowned and shook his head slightly.

“I didn’t realize it until I took out the trash one day. There it was, removed from the mailbox and sitting in shreds at the bottom of the can.”

“But who would do that?”

Melina’s nostrils flared at the question. “My step-father.”

Memories of Melina’s other letters revealed themselves to Chris. Her mom had remarried after a bitter divorce and Melina did not get along with the new guy.

She continued, “He’d always been an asshole, but I found out he would read my original letters, then reseal them and send them. I guess he’d had enough of my complaining after a while and put a stop to it altogether. I confronted him about it and things spiraled out of control from there.”

Chris felt as if his brain would overheat. There was so much to think about, but a new question burned foremost in his mind.

“How did you find me?”

There was a momentary pause. Melina looked as if she was formulating a very careful answer. “That’s complicated, but after all of these years, there’s still an unsevered connection that formed between us.” She focused on the towel crumpled in the corner of the room. “I don’t want to see you go any further down a dark road.”

Chris grew suddenly defensive. “You don’t know anything about me.”

“No,” she said, “I know everything about you now.” She lifted her hand to his cheek again and stroked it gently. “You were always so kind and open to me. You comforted me when my parents split up and boosted my confidence when it was low.”

Now she frowned.

“And yet you never said anything about your own problems.”

Paranoia set in and Chris didn’t know if she was being figurative or literal. How could she know anything about his own private hell when he’d worked so hard to keep it from his letters. His lack of friends and his own father blaming him for not taking the initiative to change himself so that he could make friends–these were things he sought to escape, not discuss.

Tiny palpitations in his body turned violent and he shook visibly.

“Please go,” he said.

To his surprise, she didn’t seem hurt or angry.

“Okay, Christopher. I’ll leave, but can I ask one last favor?”

Anything to get her moving. He couldn’t take much more of this overwhelming situation without collapsing onto the floor.

“What?”

She moved her hand from his cheek to the back of his head and pulled him toward her. Their lips met and Chris’s first thought was how horrible his breath must be. Still, she didn’t seem to mind and he didn’t resist. Experiencing her so close to him measured up with any recent high that he could recall.

It wasn’t a sensual kiss, but their lips were pressed together for what seemed an eternity. Something was happening in Chris’s head–visions of Melina’s life came to him like scenes from a movie, mixing with his own memories.

He saw himself sitting at his parents’ old dining room table, the pencil’s eraser held to his lips while he pondered over the yellow lined paper.

Then there she was, looking as young as he remembered. She was smiling as she lay stomach-down across her bed, kicking her legging-covered feet in the air while she read one of his letters.

Next, Chris was arguing with his father who insisted he take up football–repeating that if he didn’t make friends, at least he wouldn’t be such a pussy.

But then he cringed at the next scene–Melina’s tiny hands flying up to defend herself against an onslaught of hairy, brutish fists raining down on her–their owner, an older man screaming at her for trying to turn her mother against him. In the background, a woman stood watching in silence.

Chris was in his apartment, disheveled and passed out on the lawn chair. Drool trickled down his chin while a piece of twine strangulated his bicep.

Finally, there was a scene of Melina as she appeared now–wearing her black felt coat beneath a bright moon, standing atop an old, wooden railroad bridge separating chunks of dense forest. Her cheeks were stained with black eyeshadow and she peered down into a shimmering river, raising her arms as if they were wings, leaning forward until her feet detached from the rails.

The visions stopped and all was dark.

Chris slowly opened his eyes to find himself leaning into the air, his apartment door slightly ajar. He rushed outside. The only semblance of life was an old man in a ratty white tank-top, pushing an overflowing shopping cart along the sidewalk below the Palm Oasis apartment complex.

Chris’s chest began to ache again, but this time for other reasons. He ambled back into his studio.

There was an emptiness there, as there had always been, but this time it seemed different. He looked at the lumpy towel in the corner of the room. The image of what lie beneath made him nauseous again, not because he craved it, but now because he felt an utter disdain. He ran across the room and grabbed the pile as if it were a ticking bomb. He jammed it into the trashcan on top of the Spaghettios lid, zipped up the trash bag, and tossed it outside in the dumpster.

It was still dark outside and police sirens were going off in the near distance, but for the first time in his life, Chris felt a sense of control.

2 thoughts on “Penpals”

  1. Lots of emotion here. Love the way it all crashes together at the end, the narrative speeding up, the prose tightening. Didn’t know where it was going, and that’s a good thing. Another corker.

    1. Thanks, Col! The writing seemed to flow a bit easier for me on this one compared to the previous couple, so I guess my brain was ready to write it.

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