Chapter 1:

A Master of Walls

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             It was a cool autumn afternoon in the year 2015. A pale sun was suspended behind overcast skies. On the sixth floor of a brown brick apartment building, a twenty-five-year-old man named Kevin awoke from an uneasy slumber.

Cursed by his subconscious, plagued by recurring dreams, he found it difficult to remove himself from his bed. But just like always, he reluctantly dragged himself out and retrieved his phone from the top of his dresser. As expected, the device was chock full of messages from those in demand of his services. Unsurprised by any name on the list, Kevin got dressed and then turned to meet his doppelganger in the mirror.

The reflection showed a young man of a lean build with reddish-brown hair. Baggy pants sagged casually below his midriff, only to be covered with a baggy shirt and hooded sweatshirt. As Kevin liked to put it, he’d been “swimming in his clothes” since an early teenager, an urban look for an urban life.

He looked hard at himself in the mirror as if expecting to see anything different. A single hoop earring resided in each lobe, along with one in his cartilage. Multiple Asian themed tattoos lay beneath his clothing, as well as a few bodily scars. Last of all, he sported a silver-capped incisor tooth, an unwanted present given to him by his father when he was fifteen.  

There was a time when Kevin significantly wished for the cap to be removed from his mouth. But as the years passed he learned to embrace the rough look, accepting that he would never outlive his abusive past. From old friends to old girlfriends, everyone throughout Kevin’s life tended to regard him as a borderline tramp. It was a thing he greatly disliked. Kevin reckoned that defining events from adolescence were worn on your skin permanently, regardless if they accurately reflected the person in question. Although rough on the surface, Kevin at his core was far from it. Strangers were generally surprised at his polite and respectful demeanor, taken aback by his well-honed ability to listen. Now at twenty-five, Kevin felt like a man who lay stranded along the train tracks, unable to decide to which society he truly belonged, refusing to embrace his everlasting role as the train…

Turning from the mirror, Kevin went on to gather everything he needed for his oncoming day. After placing several precisely weighed bags of marijuana, rolling papers, a lighter, and the book he was currently reading into his bag, Kevin donned a black beanie with a gold letter “P” and swiftly left his apartment. He passed an elderly couple speaking gruffly in Russian near the entranceway to his building. After finding his car parked in front of the nearby Asian grocery store, Kevin jumped inside and slid a CD into the drive. The sound of old school hip-hop then erupted from the sound system and his mission commenced.

He started his slow crawl across the East End. His first deliveries were to those in immediate demand. Clientele included a line cook, a group of post-college hippies, a local hip-hop artist, and a movie theater projectionist. Kevin’s stale facial expression would morph into a smile with each transaction, charismatic as ever. Then his smile would immediately disappear once the recipient left his vehicle. Kevin was a true master of walls, walls that could be worked both ways. Not only did the barriers keep the unwanted from entering, they also held Kevin soundly within his trapped world. He often wondered if a word existed to describe individuals such as him, someone who was afraid to die, yet terrified to live.

As the popularity of Pittsburgh continued to grow among transplants and magazines, the city in which Kevin lived was nearly dead to him. It was a city unrecognizable, one that was filled with ghosts. At every location to which Kevin arrived, he was reminded of something or someone that was no longer present, reminiscent of when days were better. Kevin had been estranged from his family for many years now. His sister had run away when she was sixteen and had yet to return. It was something he would never hold against her. What fate held in store for his sibling he tried not to ponder, mostly out of fear. Once upon a time Kevin too held the thought of running, yet he decided against it for the sake of his mother. It was a decision he now fully regretted. Kevin, on countless occasions, had entreated the woman to move her children from her husband to no avail. For which his sister paid the ultimate price. For that, Kevin could never forgive his mother. Where the woman resided as of this day he neither knew nor cared. Yet Kevin would wager it was somewhere that involved vodka and prescription drugs.

 His father had passed away from an alcohol-related stroke not long after his sister’s departure. It was the best and worst day of Kevin’s life. The best could be said for obvious reasons. As for the worst, well, Kevin personally believed his father should have suffered more before his passing, suffered at the hands of Kevin.

As for his so-called friends, many had drifted away throughout the years. Most he couldn’t blame, the rest he pushed away on his own. About two years previous, Kevin’s best friend Sergei, who was arguably the only person he trusted, perished in a car wreck. Sergei’s death greatly affected Kevin, who in turn, re-entered a dark place that was similar to the abyss of his teenage years. Every now and then, Sergei’s older brother Pavel would reach out in attempt to lend support. Pavel would also insist that Kevin look his way, should he ever be in need of assistance.  

Throughout high school, Pavel, a gifted young painter at the time, maintained a strong relationship with Kevin’s sister. The affection they shared with each other was quite pure. Once tragedy struck, Pavel was devastated, and in turn abandoned his penchant for painting. This was primarily the reason why he consistently offered Kevin his services. Yet each time, Kevin would turn Pavel down, because he lacked the confidence to face him. The two had shared enough pain, and seeing Pavel would only stir up memories rather forgotten…

With no sales in his immediate future, Kevin set his course to one of his favorite reading spots. As he drove through the city, his ever-observant eyes hardly missed a detail.

The urban landscape changed, along with the people who came with it. Neighborhoods that had once held distinct character were now dominated by new-age real estate developments. Family-owned stores, once generational staples, had been exchanged for big market, deceitful, up-scale establishments. The demands of the Want must always be met, the demands of the Need forever taking the back seat. Anything that threatened the comfort of the intended demographic was immediately targeted for extermination. Thus, trendy replaced originality, while the daring was swapped for the benign. Culture was then marked by corporate, causing said culture to die.  

“We’re all savages,” said Kevin aloud as he drove.

Nowadays your average individual held little concern for those who surrounded them. The ever-present world of social media only fueled the flames, with so many believing a click of the like button to be equal to physical support. It was this in particular that greatly bothered Kevin, as he had long removed himself from the Internet.

 Kevin arrived at his reading oasis when the magic hour settled in. The refuge was a secluded parking lot that sat across from an old mill site near the banks of the Monongahela. All that remained of the mill’s skeleton were a few brick smoke stacks.

Sitting on the hood of his car, Kevin rolled a joint and grabbed his book, a large anthology documenting the rise and fall of the Mayan civilization. He lit the joint and began to read, the gentle fall breeze increasing his Zen. He was undisturbed by the middle-aged man casually fishing from the adjoining pier; a chum who sprung a look of glee once Kevin offered him the joint.

Kevin had been fascinated by history for quite some time now. In particular, he enjoyed reading of the ancient advanced empires that rested beyond the western world, whose mythic paradigms would forever remain cryptic. With no known talent other than the ability to hustle illegal merchandise, Kevin found purpose in the search for superior wisdom. He figured much could be gained from learning of such societies. Their vast knowledge of science, space, and nature remain remarkably advanced, even when compared to the feats of today’s technology. Kevin enjoyed fantasizing about these great cultures, as he liked to believe them as ancient utopia. Although deep down he knew that could never be the case. For the Mayans, just like every great empire that existed on this earth, were indeed conquered, conquered from within. Kevin was sure that one day the United States would meet the same fate. But when that critical Day of Judgment was to come he could only guess. Until then, he would continue to make his living in the same manner he had done for ten years... 

Kevin read engagingly for several hours until the sun crept westward and settled behind the city skyline. Ready to call it a day, he shut his book and slid down from the hood of his car. But as Kevin approached the driver’s side door he felt the phone vibrate in his pocket, causing him to go stationary. His mood brightened upon seeing the message he’d hoped all day to receive, a text from a woman named Shelly. He hopped eagerly into his car and sped off, obliging her call.

Within fifteen minutes, Kevin had touched down on the far side of the Allegheny and arrived in the city’s North Side. He parked before a stretch of recently gentrified row houses that sat a block over from a collection of social housing buildings.

Kevin exited his car, and, with a newfound gait, casually walked up to a pleasant-looking house with fresh red bricks and rang the doorbell. A few seconds passed before the door swung open and a charming young brunette greeted Kevin. Giving him a cute smile, she grabbed him by the hand and led him upstairs. It wasn’t long before the smell of potent marijuana and the passionate sound of loveless intercourse spilled from the open window and into the autumn night.

 Thirty minutes later, the pair lay in bed with their backs to the headrest. A large joint was making its way between them. They said very little to each other as they smoked. Then Shelly broke the silence with words that Kevin knew to be coming, yet he hoped wouldn’t arrive.

“Well, I guess its time for you to be leaving then,” she said playfully.

Giving her a two second gander, Kevin let out a laugh and shook his head.

“Will you ever let me stay the night?” he replied hopefully.

The comment provoked a smile from the woman.

“You know the drill babe,” said Shelly. “You sell me weed, we smoke, we fuck, we smoke again. Then you leave. Are you really complaining?”

The comment was followed by a flirtatious wink and a masterful French inhale.

Kevin sat up, still chuckling. He slowly reached for his clothes before putting them on. After fully dressing himself, Kevin rose to his feet and walked to the door, but then stopped and faced Shelly one last time before leaving.

“Honestly, I don’t think I can do this with you anymore,” he said truthfully.  

Shelly sat up to become level and cocked an eyebrow, surprised by his unexpected remark.

“What do you mean?”

Again Kevin shook his head, now smiling jovially at her attempt to feign ignorance. Although hardly the extrovert, Kevin decided that he could no longer withhold his feelings.

“Listen, Shelly,” he said firmly. “You got the type of fire and class that I don’t usually see. So I don’t think I can be your little call boy anymore.”

Now actively listening, Shelly went over to hand Kevin the joint.

“You see,” he continued, “for the past few years, I’ve done pretty much nothing except dedicate time and energy towards myself. In fact, you could say I’ve pretty much become an expert at that. But now I’ve grown weary, because all I want to do is dedicate that energy towards someone else. And with my time, you’ll find me surprisingly generous.”

Kevin proceeded to hit the joint, his sharp gaze never straying from Shelly.

“So let me tell you what’ll happen if you cut me off. Yeah, I’ll probably be bummed for a little bit. Shit, I might even expand my funk. But eventually I’ll move on, because I’m resilient. And I will find someone else. And when I do, you can guarantee that I’ll be just as generous regarding my time with her as I’m offering you right now. The choice is yours, Shelly, so what’s it gonna be?”

Shelly’s smile receded as he spoke, and a look of vulnerability had formed on her now reddened face. In that moment, Kevin thought that he had her. But really he should have known better, for Shelly’s smile quickly returned.

“You’ll be back,” she said slyly, gesturing him away with her hand. “Now go!”

Kevin smile had returned as well, despite the fact that it wasn’t genuine. He bowed his head as a faux notion of farewell and took his leave of Shelly’s house.

Kevin freed a sigh of disappointment as he collapsed onto his car seat cushions. Though he had little right to complain; after all, it had been some of the best bullshit he’d spun in some time, most of it being bullshit that is. Kevin figured it wouldn’t be long before Shelly called his bluff, which would probably be followed by him lumbering back.

 Parked in the heart of The War Streets, in wake of the luminous towers beyond the river, Kevin reclined in his seat and peeled off, beginning a slow meander back to the doldrums of the East End…

Chapter 2>>