I don’t know what it is about me that a certain kind of people find me very accessible. The junkie currently making a lunge for me isn’t even the worst incident that’s happened to me this month. Again, why do I live in a city of millions?
I’m not a germaphobe but I really don’t want him to touch me. It has nothing to do with the general aversion most of us have toward, let’s say, less desirable elements of society, and everything to do with the grime under his fingernails, the bloody froth covering the bottom half of his face, oh, and the vomit stains on his shirt. But mostly the blood.
I don’t like being touched on a good day, and this isn’t going to be one of those exceptions. Up close, the guy doesn’t even look that bad—and certainly not like someone who you’d expect to shudder his way through withdrawal like that. He isn’t movie-star pretty but could have starred in a commercial, maybe for cleaning products—the “before” part at least. He’s moving uncoordinated enough that while his initial lunge up from the ground toward me made me back into the corner of the cereal aisle, that single step backward is enough to keep me outside of his splatter radius—
—Which he deigns to demonstrate a moment later as he hunches over, groans, and hurls up what looks like a fountain of dark, semi-congealed blood. Either that, or he has downed a gallon of food coloring very recently.
I must have made a sound of disgust because his head snaps up, and this time, those eerily unfocused eyes have no problem finding me. They aren’t simply bloodshot; there is something deeply wrong about them. From way too close for comfort, I can see the burst veins in them, no shit; but there is something else. Something like spidery, dark cracks—
Nope, nope, nope!
I have zero interest to see any more, or find out what host of diseases that guy is rocking.
Already, I can hear steps coming toward us behind me, his screaming and groaning alerting employees and shoppers alike.
Chewing on my bottom lip, I hesitate, then blindly grab the first box of cereals I can reach, thrust it toward him, and use his momentary distraction to sidestep around him and the puddles of bloody vomit he has left while holding my breath, whatever good that will do. That guy doesn’t look like he’s part of the “lick the top of the ice cream and then put it back” crowd but I don’t want to risk it.
As soon as I reach the fridge, I wrench open the door, grab two bottles of coke, and hightail it out of there.
I flee into the last aisle—not the one where the junkie is hovering—just as the first of the would-be Samaritans arrive. I recognize her as one of my neighbors, Chatty Marge from 35B. I see her, but thankfully, she doesn’t see me, too focused on the junkie as she is. With a little more luck, I’ll be out of here and gone in no time.
But no such luck. I’m just past cleaning-product central when a high-pitched—rather theatric, if you ask me—female screech makes heads all over the store turn in the direction of the soda shelf… again. In L.A., you never know when you get discovered. Better always have your A-game performance ready. One of the two store employees comes dashing by me, ignoring me in favor of whatever spill needs to be mopped up that, for sure, must have been the cause for Chatty Marge’s outcry.
“Is he dead?” a—different—male voice can be heard from back there.
“He’s still breathing, I think,” Marge answers. “He wouldn’t be frothing at the mouth if he wasn’t.”
Yet another onlooker—female chainsmoker, from what it sounded like—joins in. “That’s rad.”
Ugh. People. Worse yet, people here. I’m not the worst, trying to keep myself out of the developing situation, that’s for sure. Not that I’d be more willing to help another day, but tonight, I don’t have time. I’m still four solid hours of work from being done, and if I get held up by police and questioned, that window will have passed. See, it’s only responsible for me not to linger.
I’m certainly better than those vultures.
And yet, I’m curious. L.A. may be different, but you don’t run into frothing-at-the-mouth junkies any day.
Everyone’s attention is now drawn to the junkie, including Mike himself, heading in the same direction as everyone else. Sure enough, when I make it to the counter, it’s unmanned—and wouldn’t you know it, of course the deli doesn’t have any self-checkout registers.
“Sir? Sir, can you hear me?” I hear Marge shouting.
“Someone call 911!” the guy who’s previously figured that the medical examiner would be more appropriate suggests, very heroically so.
Mike sounds less than pleased about the suggestion. “Let’s get him some water first. And mop up the floor. Let me help you up.” I presume the junkie is somewhat responsive now. “See, it’s not so bad—”
Just as he says it, the sounds of retching drown out his words—that quickly turn into a low curse. Craning my neck, I try to see what is going on at the other end of the store, but I’m still standing in the wrong aisle. Great for getaways, not do great for gawking.
Curiosity makes me want to check back on them. Self-preservation makes me want to run.
I look around if maybe the other employee is about to take over checkout, but she is nowhere to be found. I haven’t brought any cash so I can’t dramatically drop a fiver next to the register and leave. Simply taking the bottles is out of the question. I’m sure that while no amount of shouting would get anyone to notice me, the second I exit the deli, they’d accost me. There is, of course, one more option—and after casting another look around, I take it and step behind the register. I’ve watched Mike do this a million times so it isn’t like I don’t know how to scan my coke and check my card…
“You’re weird, you know that?” a male voice next to me notes, making me jump and almost drop my freshly-printed receipt.
Casting around frantically, I find him standing just outside of the door to the deli, smoking a cigarette. He’s tall, tan, with dark hair and a beard that has definitely outgrown “scruff” a week ago. If not for the cancer stick in his hand, he may have been handsome but the stink of that thing is revolting even across the five feet between us. His dark leather coat and boots scream “biker”—definitely not the kind of guy who I’ll quip at that he probably isn’t allowed to smoke right outside the door. Heck, what do I care? And who is insane enough to accost anyone in this city in the summer who survives dressing in long sleeves? Except that now I’ll have to walk through that cloud of stink. Peachy.
I’ve been staring mutely for too long as I scrutinize him, and I don’t exactly want to add to his accusation, although why I give a shit is beyond me. “I’m being honest,” I quip back, grabbing my coke.
“Think that guy’s going to make it?” Tall, Dark, and Asshole muses while his attention keeps skipping from me to where he can see down the other aisle.
“No idea,” I mutter, aiming for the free part of the door that he isn’t occupying—and have to come to a halt when he drops the cigarette and grinds it out, staring straight into my eyes. No idea where he gets off but I have zero interest in selling what he’s buying. Not even tempted to say “excuse me” I do that awkward side-step thing to reach the now-unoccupied other side of the door—just in time to hear a man behind me shriek.
“He bit me! He fucking bit me!”
Yeah, I’m so out of here.
Without wasting another look behind—if kind of dying to get a glance at the carnage—I make it out onto the sidewalk and start my way back home. I look back at the end of the block; why, I can’t quite say. Only to find the asshole staring after me. I stare back. He turns away, just as the first people come running out into the street, fleeing the deli.
I’m way ahead of them, safely back home when I hear an ambulance and two squad cars come to a screeching halt by the deli.