'49 Was a Bad Year (Part I)


What the hell is wrong with this place?


No matter what street I turned on or flashing lights attracted my attention, not a single diner was opened. Eight o’clock and the entire damn city was shut down. I get it—it’s dark, but what do these people do at night? No clubs, no restaurants, not even the pharmacy! Did no one have emergencies at late hours?


Furious by this, my empty stomach wailed. Stabbing pains followed, all because I didn’t get the memo about curfew. It certainly was no New York. The fact that no being wandered the vacant streets made the night all the more insidious.


Giving up on finding any sustenance until morning, I drove towards the outskirts to the motel I saw along the way: Sweet Dreams Inn. Did the local mafia name that? Certainly looked like a hotspot for the underworld: patches of shingles missing, pavement cracked with potholes, and paint peeling from the doors. At least it was well lit, with enough street lamps to double as a landing strip. That was enough for me.


I stepped out of the car, only to grip the hood for stability. My legs tingled, wobbling under what little weight I had. Ten straight hours of driving will do that. Taking a minute to breathe, feeling returned to my lower limbs and I stumbled towards the front office.


Inside the smoky haze, a blond woman leaned back with a magazine in hand and a cig between her lips. She sat behind a counter, cluttered with a service bell buried under sheets of paper. It was only when I leaned against the creaky surface did she glance up.


“Buenas tardes,” she said.


“I speak English.”


“Really? You look—nevermind. Want a room?”


“Why else would I be here?”


“No need to be a sourpuss.” She reached over for a form, handing it to me with a pen. “Just sign here and here. $5 for a room.”


Digging through my pockets, I peeled a bill and handed it over. I paid her no mind as I signed a name. ”William” sounds common. What about a surname? “Johnson” is too obvious. Same with “Smith.” “Boyer”? I’ve heard that name before. Plain enough.


I only noticed the woman’s stare when I handed over her pen, which she took so daintily by its end. Looking back at it, the reason was obvious: red gunk smeared all the way down. My bandages were already bleeding through.


“Do you need a doctor for your hands?” she asked.


“No.”


“Because I can call one—”


“It’s fine.”


She paused, tossing the utensil into a trash bin. “How’d you manage that—”


“Stovetop. Where’s my key?”


I snatched it from her and and staggered out, reading “04” on the label. Making my way back to the car for all I could scrounge up on short notice, I grabbed my belongings and wandered to my room. That damn headache was already coming back by the time I undid the lock.


The smell of mildew inside didn’t help any, nor did the ongoing hum through the walls. Flipping a switch, the ceiling fan squeaked as it turned, rhythmically adding to the white noise with each rotation. The room itself wasn’t much: a lumpy bed and a dingy bathroom. It was better than nothing only by technicality.


I locked the door, dropped what I had, and collapsed onto the bed. Between my skull throbbing, my stomach pains, and my heart refusing to slow down, I just wanted to pass out. My brain had other plans.


Just focus on the room, I thought to myself. Is there a newspaper around? Anything to read? Maybe in the drawers—of course the stand’s all the way across the room!


What’s that carpet stain from? Doesn’t look red, at least. Coffee? Is there coffee here? I need a drink—No! Wallpaper. What a disgusting pattern—so busy. Who thought that was a good idea? The world has no shortage of bad ideas—


It’s fine. No one saw me. No one knows me. Just keep my nose down and it’ll pass—No, it won’t. There’s no way they don’t know. They’ll send someone after me once they figure out where I am—Then skip to another town. It was easy enough the first time.


Why did I do that? Now I’m stuck fleeing for my life—It was his fault! All of it! Two-faced piece of shit! I never wanted this! Why did I ever bother with him? Just because he talked to me a few times? I’m a fucking idiot. At least he had that much right—Quiet—Stop!


What’s that hum coming from? Is it the electricity? Is it wired right? What luck it’d be to get all the way out here only to die from an electrical fire. I need a drink—dammit!


What am I doing tomorrow? Eating. Definitely eating. Should I stay here? It’s less busy, at least. So far, not a bad choice—


This headache would go away if I drank something. I’d get some sleep, too. There’s a bottle in the bag. Doesn’t have to be that much. Just enough to quiet my mind—I can’t! What if someone shows up? What if the cops knock on my door? I need to be alert—What’s the point? I’d be doomed anyways. Why did I bother running? Not like I have anything to look forward to—


Don’t. Just forget the bottle and—Well, it’s already in my hand. Just need to get the top off and I can get some sleep—What a news story that’d be! “Wanted Madman Arrested While Plastered!” Put it down and figure out a plan—Just enough to get rid of this headache! That’s not a lot to ask for, is it? Just a sip—


The glass shattered on the blacktop, booze splashing against shards. What happened? My arm was extended. I was at the door. I threw it—right in the middle of the parking lot. Did anyone see that? I glanced around. When I saw no bystanders, I shut the door and locked it again.


Great. What a waste of money—It’s better off this way. Keep your head clear—Not exactly easy to do with this damn headache! Maybe a shower would help? Not like there’s anything else to do here.


The bulb flickered, with the steady drip of the shower head adding to the racket. At least on full blast, it was a continuous noise that melted into the background. Drawing the curtain, I grabbed the complimentary soap and stepped in.


I should’ve changed my bandages before this, or at least wrapped them better. The suds stung no matter how I held the bar. Gingerly washing with this in mind, it was at least a tolerable experience. Hell, the shower was actually hot. Water pressure of a fire hydrant, but I’d take that over the cold.


Hopping out and wrapped in a towel, I looked to the mirror—fogged. For the best, really. It didn’t need to tell me how shoddy I looked after a day like today. Couldn’t even get a finger through the curly, tangled mess of hair.


Am I easy to recognize? The hair can change, but what about the rest of me? Or am I enough of a nobody to blend in? My nose certainly stands out. Looks like a damn beak—


“You look just like that flaky bastard—”


Why did I throw that bottle? This is the last thing I need to think about—Just focus on what you’re doing.


Turning the knob, water spilled from the faucet.


Dry off and try to get some sleep.


I twisted it farther.


Don’t even look at the mirror—It’s fogged anyways! What does it matter?


Steam rose.


Stop thinking about—


“I never wanted you in the first place!”


“SHIT!”


Only when the initial pain subsided did I yank my hands from the burning water. My bandages were drenched, sponging in all the goo and washed-out blood, with a fresh coat soaking through. Son of a bitch!


Careful not to do anymore damage, I peeled the wrappings off. It was all red underneath. My hands were never going to heal at this rate. Not that they’d make a full recovery in the first place, but at least to the point where they didn’t ooze everywhere.


I pulled out more gauze from my bag, steadily re-wrapping my hands. Not too tight. Go around enough times so it doesn’t bleed through. Do each finger separately.


What would even happen if I bound this with all my fingers touching? Would the skin fuse together? Would I end up with deformed mitten-hands? Not really a hypothesis I’d like to test, but I am curious—What was I thinking about before all this?


Now with fresh bandages, one place beckoned me: the bed. Bumbling out, I flopped face-first into the mass of springs and padding. Coils dug in, with only blankets softening the pressure points. My brain still rattled in my head, but at least it was quieting down.


I don’t remember falling asleep, but the sun’s glare through my shades was enough of a wake-up call. Rolling over, the clock read 10:35. Finally! There had to be stores open by now! Ignoring my innards strangling themselves for my attention, I toppled out of bed, got my shoes back on, and stepped out.


Making sure to not roll over the glass from last night, I drove into the city. People! Who would have thought I’d get a thrill from seeing other humans? Back and forth on the crosswalk, up and down the shopping strip, and in and out of my one and only mission in life at that moment: a diner. I grabbed the first spot I could and rushed for the door.


Recently refurbished, the place was as clean as an operating room: tiles polished, countertops wiped down, even the jukebox was spotless. I shuffled over to a stool, eyeing any and every dish around. I didn’t care if half the food was fried beyond recognition—I wanted it.


“What would you like?” I snapped to attention. A waitress stood in front of me. She smiled, yet her eyes couldn’t help but glance down at my hands.


“Anything.”


“You need to be more specific, honey.”


“Uh . . . burger. A burger with fries.”


The woman jotted this down. “And to drink?”


Dammit. “Coffee.”


“How would you like that?”


With vodka. “Black.”


“All righty! Won’t be too long for your order.” The waitress left, wandering to the back kitchen window with her note before continuing on to other patrons.


A few seats down was a man with five pancakes lathered in maple syrup. The sweet scent drove me crazy. A dollop of whipped cream on top was squished down, spreading sugar all across the surface. Syrup dribbled off the edge, pooling around the bottom pieces and dousing them. The lucky bastard cut his brunch with the side of his fork. Bread crumbs tumbled into a gooey lake, and the pancakes themselves were plump with flour and butter.


“Sir?”


Ripped from my long-distance admiration, the waitress laid my plate before me. It was colossal. How could anyone wrap their jaw around such a thick sampling of meat? The bun was just as large, somehow able to contain the pile of melted cheese, chopped onions, and moist pickles together—


“If you don’t mind me asking,” said the waitress, “what happened to your—”


“Boiling water.”


If she responded to that, then I don’t have the damnedest idea what she said. I gorged—there wasn’t a moment without food in my mouth, with pieces large enough that I have no clue how the hell I didn’t choke. Juicy and tender, the burger slid down well with crunchy toppings and handful after handful of fries. The plate was cleared and I drowned it all, chugging coffee like I was a human funnel.


It had been far too long since I remembered the last time I felt this stuffed—or even full. The meal weighed down inside me, the dull ache more than welcomed. While I took in some needed deep breaths, the waitress placed the bill near me. Dropping coins down, I got back to my feet.


I lurched back towards the car when a newsboy waved. Young and dirty, he thrusted his paper at me.


“Five cents!”


Might as well figure out what’s going on in this crazy town. I handed over a nickel. He grinned, presenting me with the news.


“Thanks! Hey, what did you do with your hands?”


“Dunked them in acid.”


“Why’d you do a thing like that?”


“You’ll understand when you’re older.”


I kept walking, flipping my purchase open. Thumbing through, I found the page.


“Wanted.”