You're trying hard not to see what's in front of you. You don't want to see it, see him. You squeeze your eyes shut but that doesn't stop your shoulder blades from colliding with brick. That doesn't stop the tear you feel in your chest that you know has nothing to do with your labored breath.
You don't want to see this, you don't want to know when he reaches into his pocket because you know that his hand glints silver in the moonlight that spills over the rooftops, just a little. Never starlight in New York. Something as small as a star escapes notice in a city this big.
Funny, how a switchblade makes you long for home, for Roscoe, where the soil was always a bit too rocky to fill your stomach right but where the air was crisp enough to keep a healthy fresh-pinched flush in your cheeks. You ran away for adventure, you ran away to find a man's work, real work, so you wouldn't have to sit around and wonder what to do about a bad harvest every year like your daddy and his daddy before him. You ran away, but you didn't know how bad you'd miss the stars. You didn't know how much you'd long for thin soil and and a blade of long summer grass to roll between your teeth. You wonder if your mama misses you, now that it's been two years. You wish you wrote, you wish you'd gone home. This isn't home, this bustling metropolis. This isn't home, this alley where a knife is trembling in your direction.
You hold up your hands. This was never your fight, and you both know it. You've never been the aggressive type. You know he won't back off, not now, but you want your death forever on his hands. This isn't self-defense, or a matter of pride, or even a fair fight. This is murder. And it's cold, so cold on these bricks and your right foot numb in a puddle. You crinkle your nose because it hasn't snowed in weeks, a real dry spell, and the urine you're standing in is fresh. But hell, that's just life now. You guess you'll just have to die smelling like piss, another man's piss, in some dank December alley.
His breath crystallizes inches from your face and the corners of your mouth curve up because that's the closest you've been in weeks, whether or not he notices. You thought he was avoiding you because he was moving on, not because he was planning to immortalize you at seventeen, to store you in his memory, where you will belong to him and him alone.
You can't help the chuckle that bursts from your lips as you realize that at this rate, you'll freeze to death before he gets around to killing you with his shiny knife.
You think this is funny? His voice is a carnal scratch, the low growl of a man about to kill another man, but you can sense an undertone of anxiousness. He doesn't want to kill you, you realize. He wants you to die, all right. He just doesn't have to be the one who throws the knife.
But that ain't fair; if he wants you good and dead then he has to do it himself and he has to watch you suffer. You want to hurt him now, but not like he wants to hurt you. You want his to wince and avert his eyes like you are to the knife you know will wrench your spirit from your body. You want the guilt to gnaw on his heart and his stomach until his dying day. And so you throw a grin in his direction and shake your head cockily. Nothing's funny.
But he knows you're lying, he knows you're reading him like a pape and there ain't a thing he can do to stop you. His lips curl into a snarl and he throws obscenities at you, but his words can't hurt you, not now that you're dying in an alleyway with piss in your boots and frostbite creeping up your shirt. And so it can't hurt, really, when you burst into laughter, gripping your sides and trying to not sound as hysterical as you feel. But Lord Almighty, does it hurt when that silver switchblade, so pretty in the moonlight, slides between your ribs. Your laughter turns into a guttural yell as you look down at your abdomen. The handle of the knife is protruding several inches. He didn't stab you deep, didn't have the balls. This would be a relief if you don't feel such a sharp pain when you inhale. It burns like a motherfucker, worse than that time you got bit by a dog even hungrier than you, worse than when that copper cracked you over the head with his nightstick. You know he got a lung, or something else important, and even God couldn't do much now.
You're not in New York anymore. You're not hurting no more. You're in Roscoe, and you bend down to kiss your mama's cheek. You're in a field, and your father lets you man the gang plow, a glint of pride in his eyes as you work the fields that'll be yours one day. Except now they won't be, because your lover just punctured your lung in a cold alleyway and now you're sinking to the ground, piss seeping up the legs of your pants but the rank odor is welcome, anything to take your mind off how much it hurts to breathe breathe in out breathe. Your head spins a little, but somehow your fingers find the hilt of the blade and, with a sharp tug, pull it out from between your ribs. It hurts almost as bad coming out as it did going in and you bite your tongue to keep yourself from vomiting. It doesn't work, though, and you cough up your meager breakfast right there on his feet. Regaining some dignity, you shakily rise, leaning against the wall for support and wrapping an arm around your midriff as if it would keep your blood from spilling onto the cobblestones below.
You're angry now. You throw the knife at his feet, and it clatters on the stone as he leaps out of its path. He doesn't want to see what he's done, but you want him to suffer like you. You ask for another.
He looks anxious now, he can't stop staring at the blood on the cobblestones, your blood seeping from you like smoke from his cigarettes, blood blackened thick and cold. He's backing up now, toward the mouth of the alley you so foolishly followed him into. Except it wasn't naïveté that caused your demise. Your conclusion was inevitable and you both knew it, just like how you feel the inevitability of death onsetting with every step he moves away from you.
You're lying on the cobblestones. You don't know how this happened, but you're soaking in your own blood on the street, warm blood, and at least it takes away from the cruel winter wind that's scratching at your face, your arms. He's gone now, only a shadow on a brick wall. You don't remember his disappearance.
Your fingers are attached to your ribcage and you're afraid to move them because you're scared of all this blood that's falling out of you in a dark alley at night, all alone. You know there's no one to hear you if you cry out. You know there's nothing they could do to stop it, either. You just think it'd be nice to have someone there. Somebody to close your eyes.
It's getting harder to breathe now, and you're struggling to remember where you are. Your breath crystallizes in front of your nose and you smile at it because it reminds you of winters at home, where your daddy let you pick a big pine tree for the sitting room and your mama boiled steaming cider every Sunday because she knew it was your favorite. They're good people, your parents. Hard working farmers who set the backbone of America. It's a good thing you decided to stay home after all, so you can take over the farm when your daddy grows weary. It was just a farm boy's daydream, anyway, to run away to the big city. It's a good thing you're home, even though it's cold so cold and you can't see your breath anymore, can't move your fingers to check your own mouth for respiration. It's a good thing—