It was ten to two in the morning, I had just about closed down Zeke’s. I could hear the bartender and waitress laughing, punch-drunk, as they cracked jokes and slung garbage bags into the clanking dumpster out back. Cold air stole in from the metal door they’d propped open. I should have been exhausted after a long week at work, but wasn’t. I was drumming my fingers on the bar and thinking about where to go next. I pushed back from the bar, checked I’d left more than enough tip. I called a good-night to the staff out back but didn’t stay to see whether they’d heard me.
Out front, I pulled up my coat collar, tipped my head up to breathe the frosty air deeply. It rushed in against the nerves jangling inside me, seemed to only coax them higher. I set out fast. It was three miles home from here, down Charleton until I hit the main drag of Fairway, but I needed the walk, or I was going to get myself into a fight for no reason at the nearest opportunity.
With who? I laughed at myself softly. Even on a Friday night, the city was quiet, stuck to early hours; Zeke’s was one of the only bars that stayed open past midnight.
Charleton was old, winding its way down a steep hillside, cluttered with decrepit small businesses built off of spidery alleyways. I strode past them in a rush, one of the expected scant handful of people still out. Streetlights glinted off of smeary storefront windows and the occasionally patches of cobblestoned sidewalk. I went faster and faster, smelling snatches of wood-smoke and garbage curling through the frosty air.
Soon I was only one or two turns away from the bottom of the hill. I would have rushed right by the last alleyway if I hadn’t heard a clatter, the rustling of shifting bodies, and a distinct gasp, which might have been a choked-off cry.
I checked my headlong progress, pivoted slowly. I took one, two steps into the alley. The sounds of a scuffle were distinct now. Slowly my jittery senses fixed on the dark shapes at the back of the alleyway.
There were three or four men, crouching or bent over. And there was a wheelchair, sitting askew, and there was a slight figure sliding out of it. One of the bent figures had an arm around its neck, one hand on its mouth.
What the fuck.
I am not always conscious of my size. I was conscious of it now as I strode up the alleyway - my height, my breadth, the distance that each stride ate up. I should have said “I’m calling the cops,” and let them run - they could have had a knife, a gun, but I didn’t. I wanted this.
My dad used to tell me “an angry boy makes an angry man,” but all things considered, I took it as a compliment. Not being able to get angry, before, had hurt me more.
They scattered as I approached, mostly. One took off right away, but two just backed off, and one stayed with his arms around the man in the wheelchair. It didn’t take much to scare off the two; I just had to take a few more steps inward, raise my fists, give them a swift but deliberate look-over. They took off, too, though I slugged one in the shoulder and kicked the other in the back of the knee as they passed, so he fell badly, crying out. I hope he skinned his hands, jammed a wrist.
“Hey, man, it was just a joke, this guy is my friend here - “ said the remaining man, finally lifting his hands off of the man in the wheelchair, who was sliding to the ground as I watched.
I wanted to spit. I rushed in, cutting in around the wheelchair, and grabbed the last man by the wrists, bulled against him until he slammed into the alley’s back wall. I flung him hard against the alley wall again, so his teeth rattled, looked him over rapidly. I could hit you in the face a bunch of times with my fist, I wanted to tell him. Instead I transferred both of his wrists into the grasp of one of my hands, digging a thumbnail into the tendons at the base of one wrist to dissuade him from trying anything. Then I reached roughly into his pockets until I had found his wallet.
I slapped him in the face with that - a few times, and then a few more. Then, “Get out,” I said. “You’ll be hearing from the police. And your friends shouldn’t hope I’ve forgotten their faces.”
He put his hands up, edged around me slowly, and then pounded off across the pavement. His breath was ragged, close to sobbing, but the sound was soon lost.
“Jesus Christ,” said the man who was now awkwardly leaning his back against the edge of the seat of his wheelchair. “Thank you.”
I stood for a second longer, listening to the lingering sound of running footsteps. I flexed my hands. Blood was thundering in my ears.
After another moment, I turned to face him fully. “Before you ask,” he said, “my arm’s just like this. They didn’t hurt me.”
My vision seemed to settle, broaden out from the burning focus that the confrontation had provoked. For the first time, I really looked at the man with the wheelchair.
He was slight, late twenties, with big dark eyes, longish dark hair, roughly curling. His legs looked shrunken, crooked. From the awkward way he was holding them, I wondered if he could move them much. And his right arm was shrunken, too, held tightly to his chest, the wrist bent at an unnatural angle. The fingers pointed downward, and were flexing in and out spasmodically. He was starting to shake, but, absurdly, gave me a reassuring smile, as if I was the one who needed it.
Even that shaky smile was lovely.
I put a hand over my mouth, pressing down the hot blood still surging in me. This guy needed me now.
“Okay, I said, rubbing my jaw, “are you sure? How can I help you?”
His name was Asher, he told me as he instructed me how to get him back into his wheelchair. “I’m Roy,” I said, my face right next to his as I hugged him under the armpits and carefully lifted. He leaned forward over my shoulder, a warm weight, his one arm gently pressing against my back. He was so light.
Once he was seated, I stood back to let him arrange himself. I watched as he grabbed each half of a seatbelt and buckled himself in, all with his left hand. Whatever he had, it looked like that hand was affected, too; he moved it slowly, didn’t seem to be able to exert much pressure. Maybe it was just the shock.
“We should get you somewhere warm,” I said.
He used his hand to adjust how his legs were resting, finally looked situated. He moved his hand to the little joystick at the end of the armrest. “I think,” he said, “I’ll be okay once I get home. They barely had a chance to start anything before you arrived and broke up the party. But would you…” He took a deep breath, and I could tell he was hesitating to ask me for more help, even though he was still shaking. “Would you mind walking me to the bus stop? Otherwise I can call someone.”
“I’ll walk you,” I said automatically. Who knew how long it would take for someone else to get here, if he could even get someone to answer the phone? He saw in my face that I meant it, and smiled again, just slightly, but it was enough to send a shiver of feeling through me.
I firmly set my mind on the practical again. “Are you warm enough?”
“Oh, yeah – “ he gestured at his short down coat, scarf, and boots, which was much more than I was wearing.
I nodded, and turned to the mouth of the alleyway. He pressed on his joystick to bring the small wheelchair into motion, and we set off into the night.