The Cities Below Us.

chapter four. brass knuckles, golden thimble.

Help comes in the form of 800 calories and a burner of grease. Then, after Eddie has shorn through the hamburger and steak fries, another hundred are tacked on with a milkshake. Every bite fills him to the tip of his soul. Even his bellyache afterwards barrels straight through twenty years of stale bread, tap water, and old meals served out of dusty cans.

James hasn’t gone as far as to close down the diner for him. As he eats what the cooks prepared him, the open sign on the door is flipped to face the street. A couple of residents wander in to take coffee and bacon at the bar, dipping their heads over the newspapers James laid out. Only two people settle down into a booth for a proper breakfast.

None of them are eating hamburgers, but then, none of them have fisted their hearts in front of the owner and turned its contents inside-out. A burger at 9am might not seem like much, but in the asylum, special treatment could mean anything from a softer blanket to a softer beating. So he’ll take 900 calories as the right hand of god.

Eddie turns his body to the interior of the wall, unable to so much as swipe his eyes along the details of their clothing or faces. They look too different from him. They carry themselves easily. The chatter they make among one another is lazily superficial and unnecessarily friendly, sewn with words he does not know.

The next time James comes back around, Eddie’s plate is empty and the male has a device in his hand. Eddie eyes it wearily.

“Listen, Eddie,” he presses delicately, eyebrows a tuft of sympathetic gray-brown. “Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s a small town, but we have a couple of guys at the station who I think could help you.” He offers up the phone, a set of numbers already clicked into the screen. “And I can walk you through the whole process if you need me to. I truly think you should get this on record.”

Eddie takes the phone into his open palm, looking at the colorful symbols. It fits weirdly in his hand, so that his fingers can’t reach the buttons while he’s holding it. Frustratedly, he lays it on the table and stares at the virtual keys.

“No- no, really,” he stutters, chest filling with anxiety. His mind folds in on itself, acutely aware of his ineptitude. He comes from a time of chunky phones with cords curling out of them, plus the few flip phones he’s seen nurses peek at during their shifts. “I don’t need them to question me too. I just want to put all of this horror behind me.”

Horror.

How many did he get through before they took him by the wrists?

Eight, ten, a baker’s dozen? It didn’t matter after a certain point. He had loved his wife. He had idolized the heels of her feet, even when they were walking away, even when they were grinding down on his chest. Whether in tall, red shoes at a restaurant, or barefoot on the kitchen floor. Or when she bashed him over the head with the hot pan because he wouldn’t let go of her, which had been her last mistake, because as soon as he hit the floor he grabbed her by the ankle and it was all over for her.

He wondered what they did with all the bodies. Were they easy to peel off each other, or did they cling to the basement floor, a melted entity of arbitrary women and one spouse?

At times, the asylum had made him feel like a victim, letting him weep about how womanhood had misled him. Other times he wept with regret and disgust at himself. Sometimes they stuck pins into his side and called him names that upset him so deeply he could only feel martyred for his actions.

But the scientists aren’t here to tell him how to feel. They aren’t here to wake him with sirens every time he puts down his head to sleep, or promise him food if he begs God to forgive him, or ask him how he feels when they show him the reels that his father created.

“I just want to keep moving,” he rushes out, tripping over his words. “Perhaps I can… face her at some point in the near future, but right now, I’d prefer to work my way back.”

He pushes the phone away with the tips of his fingers and maneuvers out of the booth, holding the wrinkled bills in his hand. “Take what you need and I’ll be out of your hair.” He watches the man with wide eyes, darting them at the other customers. He breathes out, trying to calm himself.

James sighs and finally presses both palms on the table, helping himself out of the booth. He shakes his head and holds up a hand. “It’s fine, son. Take it as a gift from me. You need your money to get back home.”

Eddie nods, folding his arms and hiding the money below his armpit. This man may be looking at him like a he’s child, but Eddie is far from needing another paternal figure. “I’m a grown man,” he voices, hissing at himself to stop shaking. “I’ll make it just fine. Really. I appreciate you coddling me in my time of weakness, but I’m ready to collect myself.”

“Let me at least walk you back to the train station,” James insists, his pale blue eyes permanently furrowed in an expression of concern.

Holding his ground, Eddie rubs his elbow, grating his bottom lip with the flat of his worried teeth.

“Okay,” he agrees quietly. He’s never been this unsure.

Leaving all the vividness of the world behind for the damp, muted colors of the asylum was hard as fuck. But it is even harder to come back and see that the outside is tainted by his time spent in there. The world is leeched. It is empty.

Or maybe that’s just him.

°


He doesn’t need an electrode poked at his brain to remember the night he was brought there.

It started with the police, who handed him off before he even saw the inside of a prison cell. Well. It had really started with a dinner invitation.

He’d handwritten the card that called his neighbors to a meal, taking full care to etch a water-colored rose around the script. He’d known Charles and Mary-Grace from when he first moved into the neighborhood. They’d all gone out dancing a handful of times, but even through the shades, the wife was a regular gardener and the husband was always coming and going in his car.

“Thank you for coming,” he had greeted them at the door, an apron tied at his waist and oven mitts tucked neatly beneath his arm. He offered a warm smile, shaking their hands and welcoming them into the house. “It’s been far too long for neighbors to go without seeing one another.”

Their old kitchen had been a small, warm thing. It was always scented with the spices that Carmen stacked in the revolving rack, or the sweet flowers she cut to fill their glass vases. The decorations were her own touches as well; she liked soft, buttery yellows and scandalous cherry-reds. Even Eddie’s own cheeks had a tendency of blushing to such a color given her prowess for bold statements.

As Mary-Grace sat herself at his dining table, she smoothed her blonde hair and looked around. “Oh, is Carmen not joining us?” she inquired, clasping her hands delicately over the tablecloth.

The juxtaposition of her mannered conduct made Eddie’s nose wrinkle in disapproval, but he masked it by turning to the oven. “Ah, sadly not,” he informed, pulling on his mitts and reaching in to remove the heaping tray of food. A large mound of beef swam in an oily, simmering bath of carrots and celery. “She is quite busy over at her mother’s, the poor soul. Left this fool all alone to burn the roast.”

Even then, the lies had a way of mangling into shapes he could believe without question. Each falsehood was brimming with such vibrancy that he never needed to rehearse his stories.

Mary-Grace nodded solemnly, looking amiably up at the two men.

“Kindness is important in a wife,” Charles filled the silence, slipping a soft wink in the direction of his own.

“Yes…” Eddie agreed, glancing down at her. He narrowed his eyes and cocked his head slightly, noticing the moment that she became discomforted by the scrutiny. “And how would you rank fidelity, Charlie?” he asked, turning to face him with a crooked smile.

The white-blonde turned back at him with a quizzical look.

Eddie set the platter down on the stovetop, pulling the oven mitts off his hands. “I rather hope it falls on a lower rung,” he clicked, voice hard as though coated in enamel. He turned back and leant against the countertop, his body slack as he flicked his hand into his breast pocket and emerged with a stack of photographs.

One by one, he flipped them through the air and let them land on the kitchen table, glossy sides facing up.

For every snapshot that landed, his chest felt a delicious twist of cruelty. Isn’t this what his father had done to him? Documented his most humiliating moments so that Eddie could never put them to rest, knowing that they forever existed as still life? It felt wonderful to show somebody else how dreadful that felt.

A few of them were innocuous images, just Mary-Grace heading up her front stairs with various men. But as he laid more down, exposing images of undressed bodies peeking from behind the blinds of her window, the narrative began to click together, spreading a block of red up Charles’ neck.

“What is this?” he demanded harshly, pointing the outrage in Eddie’s direction.

“You can’t do that,” the wife shouted out at the same time, jumping up from the table. “You can’t take pictures through someone’s window.”

Eddie had laughed loudly, the sound like the whip being cracked against his vocal cords. “Really, now? That’s the finer point of concern here?” He shot his eyes towards Charles, who was looking at him with disgust alight in his features. “You married a whore and you’re angry at me for having the gall to enligh-”

Charles punched him in the face.

His lip split and his nose bled, gushing red all down his face. He’d been in his 20’s then, young and hot-blooded, such that rage reared where pain should have been. Eddie whipped around and grabbed one of the knives out of the block, holding it defensively in the direction of the older man. Mary-Grace had let out a scream and backed up, knuckles turning white on the back of the chair.

Eddie turned back with the knife, diving for Charles’ hand.

He grabbed the male’s fingers and uncurled them, trying to force him to take hold of the weapon.

“My wife,” Eddie had thundered, spit and blood flying, fighting with every bit of strength to get Charles to take revenge of his wife, “Was good to me. She was kind and loyal. She was loving.” He breathed heavily out of his nose, wresting with the man’s grip. “She didn’t deserve to die. You wanna know why she died?”

He tried to yank Charles forward, ending up with the knife wrenched back into his hand alone. He whipped it through the air in the direction of Mary-Grace. “Because she was vocal,” he finished to her, nodding along with what he assumed was disbelief. “Because she was wily with her opinion, and made too many jokes, and said too many uncouth things.”

Eddie grabbed his head with both hands, screaming a sob of agony into the handle of the knife. “What kind of reason is that?” he begged crazily, grinding his temple into the wooden hilt. “It was a fucking impulse. A mistake.” His voice cracked, rising high. “And then,” he stuttered, jabbing the knife back in the direction of the girl, “There’s this bitch, who deserves it. And I will find everyone who deserves it. I will make up for what happened to her.”

He lunged forward and this bitch cried out, thrusting the chair across the floor. She hit him in the knees, sending him toppling to the ground, and then rammed the steel of its feet into his side. Eddie forwent the knife to try to crawl back to his feet, but she fought back, digging it into him. It gave Charles enough of an advantage to jump him from behind, pinning him to the floor by his belly.

“Get the police,” he shouted to her, sending another box to Eddie’s skull.

When the officers came, they grabbed him by his wrists and put him into handcuffs, forcing him out of the front door. Mary-Grace was shaking and Charles was comforting her, as though nothing had changed between them. The uniformed men were opening up all the doors in his house, and eventually, they descended into the basement.

About an hour later, he heard it called in on the radio. In the next hour, the police tore him out of the back of their car and threw him into the arms of another group of men. They grabbed him around the eyes and blindfolded him, dug their nails into his arms until he stopped trying to rip out of their grasp. They’d thrown him into the back of a van where he clanked around for days.



Eddie squints against the peaking morning. Leadville is bleached by sunlight, the sky a solid blue lightness. It’s nothing that can warm his skin, especially not with these memories running around inside of his eyelids. The first night in the asylum was like nothing he’d ever known. The cold iron of the walls he beat himself stupid against. The loneliness of the darkness, when the wailing and heckling of the other prisoners began. Being forced to wrap his arms around himself and realize all of the things he’d done.

Finally, he’s able to make out where they’re headed. He can see the train station platform just a little bit down the road.

James is walking straight towards it, but Eddie stops short, his eyes caught on something else.

“Wait,” he says briefly. He looks through the window of a shop, darkened by dust. Rows upon rows of heads look back out at him.