The city lay cool and dim beneath a vaulting sky of high-scudding gray clouds. A gray shroud that covered the corpses of buildings, stiff in brick-and-steel rigor mortis, pale in their eternity of sooty death.
The heat of the afternoon had slowly passed away, the trembling waves of warmth disappearing like wraiths to be replaced by mugginess and unrest; the sweat had gone back into the pores, the cats back into the alleys, the wineheads back into the bars, the amateurs back to their pads.
It was evening, and evening was free time, and free time was the time to go! Rusty was abroad in the night.
His name was Rusty, but it wasn’t really Rusty, and he had cut the umbilicus that bound him to the gang. A half hour before he had faced the gang and snarled, "I told ya a couple months ago I was through, that I was split with the Cougars, an’ ya been buggin’ me ever since to come back. Now you better know what I’m sayin’—’specially you, Candle—that I’m done.
"That’s my answer. Now I’m splittin’ and I don’t want no trouble."
That had been the speech, and those had been the emotions, and that was what had started it, what had set the spider to weaving. The spider was a city, gray and observant and jealous once in a while, though deep inside it didn’t really care at all. But the black widow cannot stop weaving, and the city cannot stop weaving. Alike in temperament, they feast on their spawn.
It was good to get away from them. Rusty felt the sweat that had come to live on his spine trickle down like a small bug. He had made his peace with them, and he was free of the gang. That was it. He had it knocked now. He’d built a big sin, but it was a broken bit now. The gang was there, and he was here.
He was no longer Prez of the Cougars, and the road was starting to open up. He’d be able to walk past the fuzz on the corner, and not have the bluecoat stare at him like he was hot or something. He was out and gliding.
The streets were silent. How strange for this early in the evening. As though the being that was the neighborhood—and it was a thing with life and sentience—knew something was about to happen. The silence made the sweat return. It was too quiet. Like it was down, man. A down down bit. What was up?
He came around the corner, and they were waiting.
"Nobody bugs out on the Cougars," was all one of them said. It was so dark, the streetlight broken, that he could not see the kid’s face, but it was light enough to see the reflection of moonlight on the tire chain in the kid’s hand. Then they jumped him.
He took a step to run. A fist crashed into the side of his head. He felt the brains within him scramble and jumble, and then he went down. The tire chain took him in the small of the back with a crack that numbed both his legs, sent lancets of liquid fire up to his neck.
He tried to cover, to dummy, folding in like a foetus with head and gut and groin protected, but there were hundreds of them, and they used their feet.
Metal-toed barracks boots, reinforced motorcycle boots, sod-brogans; they stomped him again and again. His ribs were numbed in a second, his back was a plain of welts and blood. One of them got through his protectively covering arms and caught him on the right cheekbone.
"Holy Jesus, Mary, God save me..." he murmured softly through bloody lips and they continued working on him.
It only went on forever.
Then the sound of a cop’s whistle broke the silence that had been host to only the sounds of stomping and his grunts of pain. The whistle came from far away beyond the veil of foggy pain that swirled in on him, and one last resounding kick took him in the crotch. He screamed like an animal. Then he heard them running away. The whistling grew louder.
"G-got to, to make it..." he bubbled, trying to rise. He fell back and lay there panting. The pain was so big, man, so big. He crawled to the gutter and slipped over, trying to raise himself on the fire hydrant. He got to his feet and saw that the world had been sawed in half across the skull-top. "Ma—make it away..." was his plea to the night.
He stumbled away, into the alley, and down its stinking length to a hideaway behind the rubbish bins and cardboard boxes. He fell into a sitting position, his eyes closed, and waited.
The cop hit the scene on the street, and looked around. Deadly all-pervading silence. Gone. They were gone, and he had missed again. Damned juvies!
The cop checked out. Rusty Santoro lay there, eyes closed, and hurt.
Then he opened his eyes, for someone was watching him.
In one of the bricked-up doorways in the alley, slumped down with a ketchup bottle full of Sweet Lucy, lay his father. Eyes red and puffed, his face a mask of interest and stupor intermingled, Mr. Santoro stared brightly at his son. Rusty could tell, the old man had seen it all and had not moved to help.
Rusty lay there with the pain like a torch in him, barely drawing breath, seeing his father for the first time that week. He lay there gasping and wetting his ripped, bloody lips with a dry tongue-tip.
"They beat’a hell outta ya, didn’t they?" Mr. Santoro cackled.
Rusty shut his eyes and let the darkness that marched in behind the irises take him. He swirled down and down, with pain his partner, and knew this was a typical night. It was the same.
Always the same.
You can’t get free. Once stained, always stained. The seeds of dirt are sown deeply. And are harvested forever.
Darkness outside, while his father laughed and fell asleep also.
Copyright © 1958, 1975 by Harlan Ellison. Copyright © 1983 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. Renewed © 1986 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.