My job brings me to the old neighborhood, the
very last place I want to see again. But
I’m not ready for custodial care, and the pharmacy needs a delivery person
familiar with the streets of Englewood,
so here I am. Tony gets my cart out of
the delivery truck and sets it on the sidewalk. He gives me a gentlemanly (and useful) assist up
the crumbling curb. I’m starting on
South Green, and he’ll meet me at my last stop, three hours from now.
I wheel the cart up the front walk of my
first customer. It’s a ritzy house for
this vicinity, a big stucco bungalow kept in perfect shape—not easy
considering what Chicago
winters do to stucco. There’s a face
moving behind the faceted windows in the front door, so I know I’m expected. I get the cold pack and receipt book out of
the cart, and make my precarious way up the front steps.
“Yes.” She’s an old white woman, probably one of the
few holdouts from the white flight of the seventies.
“I’m from Lee Pharmacy.” In case the sign on the cart, THIS MESSENGER
DOES NOT CARRY OPIATES, wasn’t obvious enough. “I have your insulin.” I can’t say ‘insulin’ without slurring the
‘s’, but Mrs. Redding doesn’t think I’m drunk. Like the tic in my left cheek, faulty speech
coordination is a classic sign of someone unlucky enough to be a fave. She pays me in cash, and I can see that the
diabetes has cost her the tips of two fingers on her right hand. I give her the cold pack of insulin, and ask her
to write out the receipt because I don’t trust my own steadiness.
My next customer is three blocks away, and
anyone can see that I need the cart more to lean on than to carry my wares. Crossing streets is a major hassle. The city fathers erected new civic buildings
in Englewood to
show the world their concern; putting handicapped ramps on the street corners
never entered the city fathers’ heads. I
never spent time in this particular corner of Englewood, but the street scene meets my
expectations: untended lawns, old
pavement, shuttered houses, more shuttered businesses, gang graffiti everywhere.
This is the tail end of the morning rush
hour, and I don’t see much street or sidewalk traffic; Englewood
isn’t known for its spirit of industry. Almost the only people I see are three men
walking into a card room. That’s the Englewood mentality: live for now, never mind future consequences
to you or anyone else. Cut school, skip
work, do drugs, gamble your earnings, have unprotected sex, let your kids fend
for themselves. I thought I’d escaped. I was in med school, and...well, nobody needs
a doctor who can’t hold a scalpel. Now I
deliver medicines in a state-supported program for faves who still have
something to give to society. As a
teenager, I was afraid to walk this neighborhood alone; rape is another part of
the Englewood mentality. I’m unafraid now. I’ve taken too much neural damage and I’m no
longer anyone’s sexual fantasy, even in my knit blouse and summer skirt. Besides that, I’m hardened to another kind of
The fear returns when I get to my
destination, an old frame two-story boarding house. Druggies sometimes take these over completely.
Despite the sign on my cart, I’m
concerned about the possibility of a bushwhacking until I look at my customer’s
prescription; it’s the same cocktail of benzos and anticonvulsants that I’ve
been taking. I leave the cart on the
front walk and go in, grateful I don’t have to climb those oak stairs to a
second-story room. At least forty-five
seconds after my knock, the door is opened by a little guy in his thirties. He’s using a walker, and his right eye is
blinking uncontrollably; I suppose he tapes it shut when he wants to sleep. He pays with a typed check signed with an X,
and doesn’t ask for a receipt. In fact,
he doesn’t say a word to me—because he can’t talk anymore? I hurry out of there, afraid to think of it.
At a street corner halfway to my third
customer, I hear a loud noise that might be the horn of an approaching big rig.
I look all four ways, and see nothing on
wheels for two blocks in any direction. I
hear the sound again, but it has no directional fix. Then I place it: the low-pitched whistle of an iron works near
my childhood home. I remember it
sounding four times a day before the place went bust in my first year of high
school. Wonderful, I’ve just had my first
auditory hallucination. I’ll report it
to my therapist when I get home, and he’ll tell me I can’t be trusted to go out
on my own anymore, but this day’s work I will finish. I didn’t hear the whistle again before
arriving at a stand of brick row houses with a whitewashed end wall. It isn’t covered only in whitewash; something
there is in Englewood that does not love an ungraffitied
wall. I get out the customer’s
medication without checking to see what it is, and hang for dear life onto the
iron railing on my six steps up to the door.
“I’m from Lee Pharmacy, Mrs. Hillman.” She’s an aproned, housewifely type; I hear
small children laughing and running somewhere out of sight.
“You must be mistaken. I didn’t send for anything.”
“You didn’t? Let me check, ma’am.” The address is right; my addled brain hasn’t
led me to the wrong door. The medication
was ordered by Vergil Hillman, and it’s...
“No mistake, ma’am. I have an
order for fifty units of Ritalin.” ‘Ritalin’ comes out completely unslurred, and
Mrs. Hillman’s face falls. Ritalin is
what coke addicts take to fight off cravings.
Why, he promised me...he...take ‘em back!”
I take a half-step back from the slamming
door, and carry the undelivered order down to my cart.
I start pushing my cart to the next delivery,
and see a sport-utility swerving toward me, the driver and sole occupant with
an oblivious expression, ecstasy and excruciation mixed together, that I’ve
imagined on my own face so many times. I’m
not hallucinating this; he’s a fave. There’s no parked car between us, just a fire
hydrant. I release the cart and make a
staggering sprint back to the row house steps. I hear grinding metal behind me, twice, three
times. Medicinal confetti cascades down
with water from the sidewalk fountain, and I turn and see the sport-utility at
rest, its front end dug into a lamppost.
The cart is in a mangled heap two houses
down, and I go to the driver’s door with the ponderous step of someone wearing
snowshoes. The airbag has deflated, and
I can see that the driver/victim is a brawny, balding man in a polo shirt. It surprises me that he’s still allowed to
drive a motor vehicle. He’s slumped
against the door, out cold; I can’t tell if that’s from the impact or from
being ridden. I debate whether I should
try opening the door, and it pounces on me—not the same one that had
ridden the driver, that one would be in no condition—it’s another one that chooses
this chance moment to take me. I have
barely enough time to lie down on the sidewalk, far enough away from anything
to avoid damaging my flailing limbs. This’ll hurt you more than it does me...that
was my last articulate thought for the next five minutes.
From the void comes the usual clutch of memories,
vague but still terrifying: people and
places from my past recast in awful scenarios; sense impressions from parts of
my body that couldn’t produce them or from surrounding space. I don’t know where I am at the moment, only
that I’m alive. It feels as though my
whole nervous system has been played like a harp, and so roughly that some
strings were broken. Continuing the
analogy, I know that the strings set up vibrations that had smashed the
harpist’s bones. Invisible, intangible
as dust motes in a shaft of sunlight, the invaders have hagridden almost every
man, woman and child on Earth. How they
communicate is a guess, but they do, and they choose the few who give them the
most intense high for riding again and again. For me, it was every few days at first. It’s been almost a month since my last attack,
and I know why: the invaders are fewer,
far fewer. The high they seek is killing
them. This isn’t how we ever beat an
alien invasion in the movies...
I come to on the hot, hard pavement, aware of
an ambulance siren getting closer. I
open my eyes and look around. A police
officer is applying Jaws of Life to the sport-utility. Another officer, one who looks fresh out of
the academy, is standing above me and notices when I move my hand.
“Did he hit you?”
“No, an invader attacked me”—that’s what I
mean to say. What comes out isn’t intelligible,
because my tongue is like a slab of hardening tar in my mouth. This is the end. I’ve taken too much neural damage for any kind
of work; they’ll send me to a nursing home. My facial muscles haven’t stopped taking
orders, though; the last thing I see is the young cop looking down at me, full of
pity because he knows what happened to me and what I’m feeling.
When I come to again, the siren is much
louder and I’m lying on a soft fabric-covered surface that wobbles under me. The sport-utility driver is riding in the
ambulance with me, still unconscious. The ambulance is a converted station wagon,
and I see tall buildings flitting past through both side windows. I’m on South Michigan
Avenue, en route to the special treatment center on West Division.
The wreckage of my memory isn’t so
complete that I can’t make the connection when I see the Lexington Park Condos
looming up. They’re on the site formerly
occupied by the Lexington Hotel, Al Capone’s old HQ. I don’t care that the sounds forced up from my
lungs no longer sound like laughter. Big
Al was more powerful than any local politician because of his revenue from
booze, narcotics, protection, loan sharking, gambling...and prostitution. His pimps first conned, then tyrannized comely
young girls into servicing male customers, not least Al himself. And one of those girls got VD and passed it on
while Al was having his good time.
I can hear the ambulance drivers up front,
talking in hushed voices. They’re wondering
about me and those weird sounds I’m making. Let them; it doesn’t matter if they get it. When she was too old for whoring and rotted
out from disease, Al’s fave must have gotten quite a charge out of it when the
big man was released from his island retreat, ravaged and praying to die. And when he finally did, she probably danced a
palsied jig on his Mount Carmel grave. Al ran the town for a while, but the white
slave was the survivor.
Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. His sf stories "In the Evening Made" and "The Spirits of '26" are storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories. "Fave" is his first story to be published in Chrome Baby.