Tony Capa limped abjectly across the filthy street, his head hung low. The thin black jacket he wore over dark jeans yielded no heat, and the bitter wind clawed at any exposed skin viciously, chilling him to the core.
His vividly blue eyes, ringed with bruised sleeplessness, gazed forlornly under messy brown-blonde hair, his hollow cheeks flushed lightly in the cold, as though dappled with glowing embers. He clenched and unclenched his fists unconsciously, poised for whatever his city had in store for him tonight. It was impossible to tell where the street walk ended and the road began, but Tony kept far to the left as he walked. Few cars passed in this neighborhood, and when they did their drivers tended to be less interested in the preservation of pedestrians than their own haste to keep various appointments.
Across the narrow street, an orange neon sign screeched 'ALL NITE DANCING' to the empty paths. A slack-jawed man of indeterminate age leaned against the door frame of the nightclub, gazing with cataract-blighted eyes past the mess of streets and alleys, wholly oblivious of his surroundings. He gummed on a cigarette, the thick white fog swirling from his toothless mouth in ethereal tendrils.
Somewhere away in the distance came the familiar blear of a discharging firearm. Tony flinched. He was used to those sounds, of private violence, used to them and versed in them; though they unremittingly left his hands shaking. But it was best not to dwell.
Walking down the sidewalk, Capa noticed that the white-painted road markings had worn off the street, leaving a veil of scummy darkness eclipsing the ground. No one cared enough to repaint the cracked tarmac on the road. It was left potholed; as scarred and damaged as those who drove over it.
Capa sighed, drawing stale air in through his lungs which was probably more harmful the carbon dioxide he exhaled.
He was assailed by the rich putrescence of the area around him. He wrinkled his nose. Regardless of having lived here for the entirety of his sentient life, he could never get used to that odour. The smell incorporated so many different textures, and none of them pleasant. The smell of perspiration, of cheap perfume and caustic alcohol. The pungent aromas of terrible coffee and human urine, and something slimy which coated the streets and stuck to the soles of shoes relentlessly, and could be removed by no amount of scouring.
The street was dark although the moon shined clearly. It seemed that it was impossible for the light to reach him.
Only a distant, mist-shrouded streetlight which produced a dull, sickly-yellow glow, casting a preternatural uncanniness over the scene, illuminated the street. Everything about the night seemed wrong, from the vivid full moon to the solitude of the streets. Tony passed as a shadow on the sides of buildings, on the road, a darker gloom than the insensitive tarmac, and wasn’t that the truth.
No couples walked hand in hand, sheathed in their own togetherness from the cold, no babies cried, no children laughed. Not that merriment was a staple. No-one laughed here. This whole city was just a void between past and present. It had no future, nor did it aspire to acquire one. The whole place reeked of musty silence and rotten despair.
Yes, this was Tony's city.
He knew the city well, knew who he needed to and stayed clear of those he had to. But everywhere he looked, there was still danger, every shadow forewarned of concealed death to anyone who approached, and here it was easier to leave no witnesses to anything.
In a street close by, a car engine revved, lampooning the cough of an ancient, emphysemic man, and a murderous pit-bull snapped in reply.
Maneuvering his bad leg with difficulty around a glaring, graffitied fire-hydrant, Tony stepped ever closer to the dull glare of the streetlight.
There was nothing Tony could do about his leg, which ached in the effort of reminding him of a long-forgotten wound. Now he paid for it in the winter, when his whole leg would lock up, as it had now.
He was forced to bend his knee with his hands and lift the leg with each step. But he didn't complain. There was no-one to complain to; no family, no friends, or at least none who cared enough to listen to him. But it wasn't safe to have friends in this city. People let you down; Tony had learned that the hard way. He was alone in his tiny throb of life on this planet. Fighting a lone battle against despair, and he was losing. Tony's forehead creased between his eyebrows, the lines there deep-etched, prematurely. It was hopeless; this town was hopeless, and so was Tony. He had been drained of resolve, of vitality and youth, and was left as an empty shell, a weather beaten, tired old man, still not out of his twenties. It seemed each time he determined to do something, anything, to get out of this life, a single look out of the grimy window of his dank, soiled hotel room assured him he was destined to live out his whole miserable existence in this place. He was destined to end up as another ghost; who haunted the doorway of a nightclub, or wasted in a bar, staring into something past himself, perhaps trying to recapture…what? What did he have now that he would wish to recover?
He was and would remain a senseless decoration in a meaningless city.
Walking past the condemned grey cardboard-box shaped houses, which had fallen into such disrepair that even the most poverty-stricken families would not touch them, Tony gazed at the far-off mountains surrounding the city. What if there was a different world out there? One that wasn't a daily fight for survival, a pitched battle between victim and culprit that almost invariably terminated with the loss of human life?
He supposed it didn't bear thinking about. Tony settled into a quick step, his feet squelching on the foul, viscid material of the road.
He stopped for a moment. An idea, or a feeling, or inspiration struck him. A car almost did in chorus, but he swerved to the edge of a building. The idea was simple; he would escape. From this whole sorry mess, find another city, another existence. He could live for once, not die slowly. He could…he could…but it would never work. He had tried to leave before, and it never happened the way he planned.
Something pulled him back, an invisible, inescapable, unavoidable Something kept him and everyone else there. Tony had never heard of anyone leaving. It seemed like this place sapped every aspiration from the souls of its tormented citizens. It was hopeless. Capa suddenly felt heavy, as though the thought of freedom so close drained him to the point of physical exhaustion. His arms hung low and his shoulders rolled forward as he ambled down the road, slipping occasionally on the more gelatinous areas of cracked pavement. But what was he to do? Stay here, become a ghostly shadow, a shell of humanity? Or try again, and fall further into hopelessness as he failed once more to free himself of this endless maze?
That wasn't choice, it was just two kinds of evil. But he couldn't choose the lesser, because he could not tell them apart.
Perhaps he was lucky, then, to have the choice made by another.