Spray paint cans were piled up like fallen soldiers, bleeding in technicolor. The hum of spinning fan blades was broken by the clack-clack-clacking of a steel ball ricocheting around the belly of a survivor–and the hiss of its vitality escaping onto canvas.
Eric’s hands were stained and he wore a mask. All over the walls were bugbears and demons that at one time only lurked inside Eric’s head. Every now and then he would stop to sweep his eyes over the room, remembering the moment that gave birth to each image.
The door opened. Mia stopped short of entering. “Have you given any more thought to Berlin?” Eric tossed the now lifeless can onto the pile. “No. For the millionth time . . . I wish I could, but I have to get this finished for the show.”
“You work too much.”
“You don’t work enough.”
The door slammed. Eric looked at his feet and willed them not to run after her.
The apartment was dim in the twilight. Eric sat in a reclining chair, staring at the ceiling, trying not to call Mia. He had too many things to do and fixing that fuckup would take hours. There were a few more demons left to vomit onto the canvas. Some sketches to complete for the gallery walls. Some people to call. . . . His phone lit up with a text, pulling him from his thoughts.
It was from Mia. “I’m going. See you when I get back, I suppose.”
“Love you. I’ll meet you there, I promise.” Eric stared at the screen, waiting for a reply.
The room was dark, save for the glow of the street lamps outside. Eric was wide awake, eyes fixed on the ceiling. The show went well. He sold a few pieces, not as many as he’d hoped, but enough to pay the rent. Mia had been gone for a few weeks, extending her return ticket two times.
She’d been booking gigs at little clubs, gifting Berlin with her talent. It bothered him for some reason. Was he jealous of a city? Jealous that they could hear her voice? He didn’t mind sharing her, but not having any of her at all was unbearable.
He could go now, if he wanted. Go and meet her, go see what it was that she loved about that place. See her play. Fall in love again.
His phone lit up.
“I can’t come back to New York. Got into some trouble but I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me. I’m sorry. I love you.”
He tried to call but there was no answer.
Eric’s flight touched down at Tegel at seven-thirty in the evening. He was at his sublet by eight. Mia’s phone had stopped working just after the text, or maybe she was ignoring him.
His footsteps bounced around the stairwell of the building as he walked down to the street. It was late summer but it felt brisk. Silently, Eric cursed himself for not checking the weather before he left, and for not bringing a coat.
The streets were quiet, he cut underneath the elevated train and walked down, through a park. Dark faces and eyes lit up in the crepuscule. Whispers came from everywhere.
“Weed? Coke? MD?”
The bars in Kreuzberg were empty, nobody here goes out before midnight. Eric wandered the blocks. Someone would have seen her, she’s hard to miss. Stunning, black hair, eyes that will break your heart before you can look away. It’s not that big of a city. . . He crossed a canal and found a hole in the wall, one amongst hundreds. The beer was cold and it washed away some of the jet lag.
An English accent drifted across the room. “No, that’s not right. Not at all.”
Eric turned his head to see two people leaning against the bar. The smaller of the two had sandy hair and a large brown beard. The taller one, the one doing the talking, had black hair and a face that looked like it had spent too many years on the fun end of a coke spoon.
Black hair continued a rant. “You can’t do that. You can’t ever fuck a deal up with him because if you do, you will end up in the fucking Spree . . . In a ditch . . . or, well, fuck, I don’t know . . . maybe in a few different parcels mailed to Abu Fucking Dabi. You need to make it right, mate, and you need to do it now.”
“Eh, yeah.” The sandy haired one sounded Australian, but Eric was shitty with accents and he couldn’t tell for sure.
“Good. Now go pay the man.”
Eric scooted his stool a bit closer and asked, “You from England?”
“Eh? Yeah. Live here though. You?”
“Oh. Not a bad city. Far better than the rest of that fucking country.”
“You won’t get any arguments out of me.” Well, a few, but this wasn’t the time.
“Here on holiday?”
“Yeah. Sort of. Looking for my girlfriend; we were supposed to come over for a vacation and I couldn’t make it. Long story. I got a text from her a couple days ago, then her phone stopped working.”
“Shit. Sorry to hear it.” There was a hint of sympathy. It took Eric entirely off guard.
“Thanks. My name’s Eric.”
“Michael.” He reached out and shook Eric’s hand. “So you’re looking for your lady?”
“Yeah, she’s a musician and when we were first planning the trip we had a few clubs that she was going to play at. Do you recognize these?” Eric showed him a list that he’d typed into his phone.
“Some of them. Is she a DJ?”
“No. Well sometimes, but mostly she’s a jazz singer.”
“No shit? There was a girl singing jazz the other night. Absolute fucking knockout and pipes like you wouldn’t believe.”
He saw the recognition on Eric’s face, “That was her wasn’t it? Yeah. Tell you what, I have to take care of some business, but you should go down to this bar.”
Michael took his phone out and tapped at the screen until a walking map came into focus. “See this pin? Yeah, this is us and you need to go over here, down by the river. I know she was there last night.”
“Wow. Thanks, man.”
“It’s nothing. Give me your number and I’ll text you later. You can buy me a drink for all of my help, huh?” A quick chuckle-smile punctuated the sentence.
They exchanged numbers and messaging handles. Eric’s phone lit up with a text containing the pin drop.
Eric set out toward the pin, passing clusters of shops and cafes. It was the lull between daytime Berlin going to sleep and nighttime Berlin waking up. The bars were open, but music and conversation wasn’t flowing out of them onto the street. It was quiet and empty.
Twenty minutes later he was walking into the bar. Eric passed through an archway at the bottom of the stairs and the room opened up. The ceilings were high but the room felt stifling. He could see Mia’s apparition on the stage–swaying, eyes closed, whispering the words to some old standard and holding the mic like a lover’s limb.
He went to the bar and ordered a beer. When the bartender came back with it, Eric asked, “Did an American girl sing here the other night? Black hair, bangs? Voice like an angel in the midst of a suicidal fugue state?”
“Oh, shit. Yeah, man.”
Eric couldn’t tell if it was apprehension or excitement that was washing over him. “Do you have any contact info?”
“Why, are you stalking her?”
“Well, obviously.” Eric waited a beat, hoping for a laugh. “No, no. I’m a good friend of hers from New York.”
“Leave your number here and I’ll give it to the guy who does our bookings.”
The beer was good. Eric made it disappear with intention and quickness. And another. And another. Midnight rolled around and the bar was empty. One o’clock hit and people began to trickle in the door. A band took stage. Talk was easy, someone asked him where he was from, he answered. He talked about his painting. Showed some phone pictures.
“Where are you from?” Eric asked a short, wild eyed man with dark eyes.
“Central America. Honduras.”
“Wow, tough country.”
They talked. Some Irish people joined them and they listened to a rockabilly band with an American singer. Someone brought out a bag of pills. It’s Berlin, why not? It had been years since he’d done this.
It was five, or maybe six. Eric was dangling from a safety harness. The Honduran’s head was peeking over the ledge from the top of the building. Eric’s mind was lost in the clack-clack-clacking. Mia’s ghost swayed and crooned when he closed his eyes. Another can was drained. It dropped to the street below and made a hollow crash.
“Don’t drop those!” the Honduran whisper-shouted down at him.
More clacking. More hissing. Swinging from left to right. Tugging on the rope for a lift or to let out a bit more slack. Top to bottom. No scuffing. Okay, time to go.
The ceiling was maybe an arm’s length above Eric when he opened his eyes. Snores filled his ears and dread filled the rest of him. His body twitched, shooting little sparks through his joints. Everything was heavy and hopeless. The bed he was in was a bunk, that’s why the ceiling was so close. Things were coming back.
Eric scaled the ladder to the floor below, collecting his clothes and his phone from a pile. His hands were stained with paint. The mirror showed a man covered in a sheen of sweat, with sunken eyes and dark, greasy hair. Those shocks kept coming. His stomach was empty but the last thing it wanted was food.
He opened the front door and walked down the stairs. When he got outside the building, he looked down the street. Parts of the night came back to him as he saw what he had done on the side of the apartment block. People were walking by, snapping shots of it with their phones.
It was Mia–but it was different, it looked classical. She was falling backward, holding her hand to her forehead. All of the tattoos matched. The hair was different, the eyes weren’t quite right. It was done in the midst of a drug bender, so flaws like that had to be forgiven. Eric tried to remember what he was thinking. His brain was full of dead ends, and every time he tried, he’d feel the tiny shocks of the molly hangover just a bit more intensely.
Eric’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out to see a message from Michael.
“Holy shit, mate. You must have it bad for that girl. The little painting you did got a bit of attention.”
Eric texted back. “I barely remember it. Big night.”
“Long story short, she’s been staying in a loft apartment in Friedrichshain. I know someone who lives there and they texted me when they saw the mural.”
The follow-up came through. “Anyway, here’s a pin drop. Good luck, mate. You owe me a few more beers now.”
“You ain’t shittin’.”
The walk wasn’t too long. The sun had decided to show itself, its warmth pushing chemical sweat out of Eric’s skin. His chills had no regard for the ambient temperature, however. Eric willed himself to walk past his flat. To keep going and cross the river. There was no time to sleep this off, Mia could be in trouble.
She had to know about the massive display of public idiocy that he’d participated in–and it was just the sort of thing that she had loved about him. At least, it’s what he remembered that she loved about him. If she was in trouble, maybe it was of some comfort.
Six-story Berlin apartment blocks loomed on his journey. Somehow they all managed to look alike, even while standing out ever so slightly from one another.
The alcove to the building was covered in shitty tags, peeling stickers, and wheat paste posters. Eric rang the buzzer.
The intercom scratched to life, “Yes.”
“Hi. I’m looking for Mia. A friend told me she was at this address.”
A magnetic click sounded and Eric pushed the door open. Six flights of stairs. The hallway wasn’t as sparse as some of the other buildings he’d found himself in, the railings were wooden and sported flourished turnouts. He counted them, ascending at a reasonable clip, sweat pouring out double-time by the time he reached the top floor.
One door stood at the top of the stairs. Eric grabbed the oversized knocker, pulled it back and let it fall. The sound was thunderous. He was just on the verge of knocking again when the door opened. A tall woman with a number two crop and an impossibly white complexion stood in the doorway.
Flatly, she asked, “You are here for someone?”
“Er, yeah. I heard that Mia is staying here. She’s my . . . we know each other from New York.”
The room was enormous and shockingly empty. With the exception of a nicely stocked bar at the far end, it was unfurnished. Footsteps echoed across the expansiveness, preceding a corpulent man in his fifties. Rarely had Eric experienced such an immediate reaction to someone. His guts turned in on themselves and his throat constricted.
“Mr. Balder. You came to see Mia, correct?” The man’s voice was wide and deep. It made the sort of sound you could feel in your chest. He had a heavy glass of brown liquor in his hand.
“Yeah. I heard she was here. Is she around?”
“She is.” The pause hung in the air. The man curled his lip for a moment, then continued, “But I want to talk to you about the mural you painted.”
“Fine, but I’d like to see Mia.”
“You can. She’s not a prisoner.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Allow me to start over, I fear I’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. My name is Cassius. I met Ms. Capaldo shortly after she arrived in Berlin. It’s an inexpensive city, but she had run out of means. Not wanting to return to New York, she borrowed some money from me. I have been quite generous, even to the point of providing lodging.”
Eric gritted his teeth.
“But my generosity has come to an end and I need to be reimbursed. Although her voice is lovely, it’s not going to bring in enough to pay me back.”
“How much does she owe you?”
“That’s immaterial, I don’t want money. I want you to paint for me.”
The twisting in Eric’s gut became unbearable. He should have been angry, but he wasn’t. He was terrified. Inadvertently, he took a step backward and bumped into the closed door.
“What do you want me to paint?”
“Something dark. Modern, yet classical, like you did with Mia on the side of that apartment. Can you do that, Mr. Balder?”
“I need paint.”
“I’ll have Alexandra get you whatever you need. You’re to do these three walls.”
“All of them?”
“Floor to ceiling, Mr. Balder. You have three days to complete them. When you are done, you are to take Mia out of Berlin. Go directly from this building to the airport and do not come back. Do you understand me?”
“I want to see Mia.”
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes.” Eric marveled at himself, at his acquiescence. This was what it felt like to be broken.
“She’s sleeping. Alexandra, show him Mia’s room.”
They walked down an impossibly long hallway. There was a window at the far end that didn’t seem to get closer, even though they had been walking for several minutes. It felt like they had gone full city blocks, but the hallway continued straight and narrow. They had passed thirty or forty doorways, all of them unmarked. That window, still as far away as it was when they started. Alexandra came to a sudden stop.
“This one. You may look inside but you aren’t to disturb her.”
She opened it just a hair. Eric greedily forced himself in front of her and pulled the door open enough to see inside.
A single bed sat in the middle of an empty room. Concrete floors and flat, white walls. White linen shrouded Mia’s body. She was laying on her back, her hair contrasted the whiteness of the sheets. Eric could see the slow rise and fall of her chest. He remembered what her breath and her heartbeat felt like. The nights that they would lay on top of one another, talking about nothing at all. Laughing. Sleeping. Bodies tangled like a bolus of snakes.
He didn’t know if it was fear or self control that prevented him from running into the room and throwing her over his shoulder.
“Okay. Let’s go. I need you to get me some paint.”
Eric worked day and night. Cans clanked and clacked and fell into piles. Swaths of color filled the room. Not once during the process did Eric see Cassius. Only Alexandra; she would appear when he needed something, somehow showing up just in time. More paint. Food. Coffee in the morning and beer in the evening. Frantic in the morning and meditative in the night. He poured everything onto the wall. Part of himself escaped through the cans and into the images. Hiding behind the fires of hell and the screams of the damned. The towers of heaven and the pits of the abyss.
On the third day he walked over to the cot that he’d been sleeping on and fell into it. His sleep was deep and dark and dreamless. He woke up to three pairs of eyes.
“Mia.” The words barely made it from his throat before tears leaked out.
“Eric. I. . .” A quick glance at Cassius before composing herself. Was that fear? “Thank you so much.” She threw herself onto Eric’s chest and cried silent tears into his neck.
Cassius’s voice sent Eric’s stomach to flipping again.
“Well done, Mr. Balder. You and Mia may leave. Remember what I said, go straight to the airport.”
Still groggy, Eric squeezed Mia’s body close to his chest. He was sure she could hear his heart tapping out its frantic tattoo on his ribcage. The only thing he wanted was to be gone. Now.
“No problem.” Eric got up and pulled Mia to her feet. “Let’s go.”
They walked back toward the flat. Eric wanted to hop a cab to Tegel right then, fuck the rest of his things–but his passport was there. He tried to get Mia to talk about what had happened, how ended up in that apartment, how she ended up in debt, but she refused. Her eyes would dart back and forth when he mentioned Cassius’s name, as if he could hear what she said. Eric had her back though, that’s all that mattered. They could work it out in New York.
Luggage, passport, everything was in place. Eric couldn’t remember when he’d felt such relief. They got down to the street and Eric thought about his big stupid gesture. Mia couldn’t have seen it, she may not have even heard of it.
“I painted you.”
“The first night I was in town I got blind drunk and out of my head on pills and in a fit of despair I painted your beautiful face on the side of a building. Must have been three stories high.”
“And that’s how you found me?”
“People were talking about it.”
Mia was silent. Still worried.
“Come on, you have to see it.” Eric remembered the way, it wasn’t far.
They came to the block where he had painted her. The sidewalk was full of people crowding to see. It was surreal, nobody had ever jostled to get a good look at Eric’s art before. His chest swelled with pride as they pushed through the crowd.
When they caught site of it, Mia’s eyes grew enormous and brimmed with tears. She threw herself around Eric’s neck.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. Why are you crying?”
“Because we didn’t leave.”
Mia’s silent tears turned into sobs as the crowd continued to jostle them. They were sucked into its gravity and pulled one way, then the next. Hundreds of hands brushed against them. The brushes became grabs, Eric could feel strong fingers digging into his arms, his back, his neck. Panic began to set in. Mia was being pulled away from him, his grip was loosening. Her big eyes streaming tears, her mouth wet. The crowd pressed on, hands obscured her face. No matter how hard he pushed or fought or pleaded, the wall of people was unforgiving.
Before long, Mia had disappeared entirely.
The crowd increased in its fury. Music blared. Eric’s clothes began to tear as scores of hands pawed and pulled at him. When the clothes were gone, the hands continued. His joints cracked under the pressure. As his body was torn apart, he lifted his head toward the wall and looked into Mia’s eyes one last time.
Contributor’s Notes: Visit Scotty Weeks at scottyweeks.com. You can find his work on Amazon, including Main de Gloire, Volumes 1, 2 and 3 of his Purgatory, NY series. Volume 4, the final volume, is forthcoming, as well as an omnibus, in February.