By J. Michael Neal
© 2021 Melancholy Donkey Press
A voice whispered to Raheem Newmann as he woke up. He fumbled around, searching for the pebble that belonged in his pocket, keeping the voices away. The voice nibbled at his thoughts as he fumbled around his air mattress. It said things he couldn’t quite make out. At last Raheem pushed his hand into his pocket and his fingers found the bit of stone, leaving him perplexed about the voice.
The witch hadn’t given him the pebble just to hide him from the voices. So long as it sat in his pocket, no one would notice him. It didn’t make him invisible, exactly. It just made sure that he never really registered in their minds. He had to take extra care crossing the street with it but he preferred the anonymity.
His arm twitched as he tried to slow his breathing. The relaxation techniques Dr. Madison had taught him held the voice at bay, but it distressed him that he could still hear it. He could hear but it gave him no commands. It didn’t tell him that everyone was watching him. In fact it told him nothing at all as he deflated the mattress and rolled it up, placing it behind the dumpster. It just murmured quietly.
He heard murmuring from the other side of the alley. Auntie Stella lay there, in a pile of newsprint. The paper rustled as she thrashed underneath, voice starting to rise in hysteria. Raheem bent down, and touched her shoulder, taking care not to wake her up. He whispered, “Errusato,” and from his throat came an uncanny imitation of a cat’s meow, followed by loud purring.
“Good morning, Marigold,” Stella muttered. “It’s not feeding time.”
She rolled on to her side, and stilled in her sleep.
As Raheem emerged from the dumpster’s shelter, an October wind blew a cold drizzle down the length of the alley. He took stock of his disposable financial resources: three carefully folded one dollar bills and an assortment of coins that totaled an additional $3.48. He put two of the bills in the pocket of a beat up backpack, nestled together with a small stack of others, his daily savings in the hope of being able to afford a new coat before December. He set aside six quarters, a dime, two nickels and eight pennies to buy a couple of microwaved burritos at the market on 7th Street.
That left him $1.70 to conduct his daily business. Raheem stared at what was left in his hand. He needed a shower but worse, it meant that he’d have to walk since the subway cost $2.50. It was harder to concentrate on people when he couldn’t sit down.
With a sigh he zipped up the pack and placed it next to the air mattress. Another pebble obscured them in the shadows. It wasn’t much, certainly nothing that would prevent a determined search from finding them, but it had been months since the last time his things had been stolen so he assumed it was working. He’d feel more confident about that if the pebble in his pocket were working properly.
His stomach growled as he turned out of the alley and onto 23rd Street. The press of morning rush hour filled the sidewalks with pedestrians and Raheem eased into the flow. He tried to minimize the amount of incidental body contact but it was a hopeless task. So he concentrated instead on relaxing and listening to them, striving to hear the minds of those around him over the susurrus of the voice’s presence.
He didn’t listen to what they said. That was rarely interesting. Rather, he concentrated on what they felt. The first time he’d done it had been an accident. He’d been in junior high school, staring intently at Annie Watkins, when suddenly he’d heard the cacophony of emotions from everyone in fifth period English class all at once.
His mother had had to pick him up from the nurse’s office still shaking from the shock of it. She’d yelled at him for making her leave work, of course.
It was different now. Walking down the street he could focus on just one person and start with just the surface of their being. He spent an hour moving with the crowds reaching out for someone. It wasn’t hard to find people who were unhappy but just a bit of probing revealed none that merited his attention. Someone under the stress of a deadline at a job she liked. Another afraid that his wife had found out that he was having an affair; Raheem ignored him.
Finally he found the sort of person he liked the best. The man walked as if carrying a heavy, invisible weight, and his emotions were flat and dull. He was prematurely bald; his shoulders slumped despite the well-tailored suit. Raheem turned as he passed and fell into step behind him. He pushed deeper, losing track of the mass of people around him. The next thing he felt was a sense of inescapable doom followed in a rush by the knowledge that it was cancer. Stage IV brain cancer.
Raheem probed deeper. What he found this time was fear. Fear of death. And guilt. Lots of guilt. Old guilt from younger days. A man with three months to live shouldn’t be carrying old guilt.
Raheem dug into the man’s background, sorting through images and impressions, uninterested in the guilt itself. Instead, he searched for primal, buried sources of joy. He avoided learning the man’s name; it wasn’t helpful and it always haunted his dreams if he did. He didn’t have much time. Not that anyone would notice a scruffy young man in a hoodie following in the wake of someone twice his age. Rather, the man was nearing his office, almost at work.
Raheem hated feeling rushed. He dug quickly, wanting to pause and admire the dedication he found, hoping he could find what he needed. He looked through the man’s marriage, sometimes happy, sometimes less so. His memories of his father were useless, the source of much anger and guilt. It was as the man entered the lobby of an office tower on Roosevelt that he stumbled across a vision of the man’s toddler daughter splashing giddily in the bath. Together, they crooned a song to her rubber duckie. He smiled as he examined it, buried deep in his subject’s mind, totally free of guilt. The memory was eight years old and buried under more recent anxieties.
As they arrived at the elevator bank, Raheem finally made physical contact, placing a hand on the man’s shoulder. He opened himself up and sucked in a breath as he felt the full measure of the man’s pain. “Errusato.”
The man’s eyes widened. Raheem always wondered exactly what they saw at this moment but his own senses were overwhelmed with the memory. “Daddy,” Raheem said in a toddler’s voice , “I want you to live forever.”
The instant stretched out to long enough. Raheem saw tears form as the man played the scene through his mind, remembering his own playful response to the statement of a four-year-old, and felt his own tears leak from his eyes.
And magically, he felt the anguish turn to sorrow and then acceptance. It was sad acceptance. He couldn’t change the facts of life and death, as much as he wished he could. But the man smiled and took a deep breath, and the guilt was gone.
Raheem felt a rush, a wave of ecstasy that dwarfed any of the drugs he’d tried. The voice was blown away in the rush. He closed his eyes as the elevator arrived. He broke contact and stepped away, accidentally running into a woman behind him. He sobbed as the feeling crested within him. When he looked again, he was alone in the crowded lobby.
Between the pebble and the sweep of feeling, the man would have no memory of him. Years before, he occasionally followed up on someone he had touched. None ever recalled his presence. Most thought it was nothing at all, just their own memories bubbling to the surface. A few thought they’d been touched by an angel. That idea felt like blasphemy.
He walked out of the lobby as anonymous as he’d entered it. Maybe the man’s relief would last. Maybe it wouldn’t. Sometimes, Raheem knew, one revelation was enough to transform someone’s life, whether it lasted three months or six decades. There was no telling who would benefit the most. Auntie Stella required frequent refreshers.
He stepped out to the sidewalk, looking up at the signs to see where he was. He’d travelled sixteen blocks without noting any of them. He felt so much better now, heading toward Grover’s Market for breakfast. The voice returned, almost tentative. The voices could never withstand the flood. Raheem liked to think that they were scared of the happiness but thought that might be just his imagination.
As the euphoria passed he realized that the rain had picked up and soaked through his sweatshirt. The chill sunk in, and he wished briefly that he could control the elements instead of just influencing minds. At least he might stay warm.
It was mid-morning by the time he reached the store, the early rush long gone. Raheem counted only three other shoppers in the aisles when he entered. He made his way quickly to the freezer that held the burritos. He hesitated before picking a single of the beef and bean. He’d save 15 cents getting two right then rather than coming back later, but he decided he wasn’t that hungry.
Burrito in hand, he looked to the register for the first time and came to a halt. He didn’t like Mrs. Cho, not since she had yelled at him a few months before. He wasn’t even sure what he had done to provoke it. He suddenly had the impression that the voice was laughing at him, and his arm started to twitch again. He thought about just walking out of the store, leaving money by the register, but discarded the idea. That was something the voices would tell him to do. Besides, the burrito was still frozen.
Raheem stood next to the coffee machine and fidgeted. He watched the counter, dodging out of the way of one customer who poured himself the largest cup the store had. He waited almost a half hour before she walked to the back of the store, muttering about restocking the gum.
To his pleasant surprise, the Chos’ daughter, Katherine, came out to replace her mother. Raheem removed the pebble from his pocket and stepped up to the register. Her face brightened as she took notice of him, and she smiled. “Hi.”
He felt eyes looking at him without the pebble in its proper place. “Uhm, hi.” He placed the slightly thawed food on the counter and looked at the variety of lottery tickets under the glass, Raheem breathed in through his nose, out through his mouth, trying to be still. If he started twitching, the security cameras would notice him.
“Just that?” Katherine asked.
He nodded, still not looking at her. In. Out.
“That’s seventy-nine cents. Do you want me to microwave it for you?”
“Please,” he mumbled, pulling coins out of his pocket. He counted out three quarters and four pennies, pleased that he could pay with the fewest number of coins possible for exact change. He placed them on the counter.
Katherine turned to put the burrito in the oven. He watched her from behind as she pushed the buttons but ducked his head as she pivoted back, hoping that she hadn’t noticed.
“It’ll be just a minute,” she said.
Raheem took a deep breath. “Is your father here?” He had to force the words out, and he could feel himself twitching. In. Out.
“Not right now. Why?”
“Are you sure?”
The microwave beeped, and he could see her shadow shift as she retrieved the burrito. “Here.” She set it on the counter. “If you want to know if he has any jobs you can do, he should be back this afternoon. You can try then.”
“Okay.” He picked up his food, holding it gingerly to avoid burning his fingers as he opened the plastic wrapper. “Thanks.” He retreated to the door.
“You’re welcome.” Her voice sounded cheerful.
As he slipped out onto the street, Raheem thrust the pebble back into his pocket and relaxed as everyone stopped watching him. He noticed the soft voice again. It put him on edge, though he was glad none of the others had found him while he was exposed.
The rain had stopped while he was inside, though the clouds refused to release the sun. He walked aimlessly, not examining his fellow pedestrians. Instead, he turned Katherine’s last statement over in his mind, wondering if that meant that she liked him. He hoped it did.
The voice began to tug at him, gently but insistently, urging him to walk north. He ignored it, but whenever his mind drifted or focused on something else, he followed the pull.
He wandered down 8th Street, between the tall buildings. It took almost running into a messenger hurrying out of the Walker Building before he started watching the people around him again. He stopped for a moment and contemplated a walk down to the university campus. With a shrug, Raheem started walking again, heading vaguely in that direction.
He sifted through humanity again, searching for one whose spirits he could lift. The difficulty wasn’t finding those in need; the desperate were a dime a dozen. It was finding the hook that was hard, the little something that he could say or do, with the recipient barely aware of his presence, that could trick them from one path on to another. He tried four different people, unable to find it. What he could do was so small. The other person had to be able to do the rest of the work.
Raheem turned the corner on Wilmot, intending to walk through the park. A woman with dark, lustrous hair sat on a bench. She had an early lunch spread out next to her: a sandwich, an apple, yogurt, and a Diet Coke. The food sat there as she stared forward, pain frozen on her face. Struck by her beauty and anguish, he failed to notice as the whispering voice fell silent.
He looked at her and found the door that would let him in. He sat down across the meal from her and reached out to touch her shoulder.
Before he could start reciting from the Dr. Seuss book she had read so many times as a child, something slipped into his mind and froze him in place. He watched helplessly as the woman took his hand and placed it in his own lap.
It was only then that she turned her face to him and he felt the intensity of her eyes. “We really must talk,” she said. “This thing you do is quite fascinating. In truth, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
He could feel her boring into him, stripping him bare for her examination. He wanted to squirm and found even that to be beyond what she would allow.
“They waste what you do for them, you know. If even one in ten of them avoids falling back into old habits, I’d be surprised.” Her voice stroked him with a satin touch. “It is foolish, this game you play.”
He watched her, resenting that she thought he was stupid.
She laughed. “You are quite transparent. So easy to manipulate the manipulator.”
Something eased and he could talk. “What do you want?”
She leaned forward and he shivered as her lips brushed his ear. “Why, I want you, of course.”
Suddenly he wanted her, too, and Raheem tingled as electric sensations ran through him.
“There is much I could teach you, and the learning would be so pleasurable.” Her face pulled away. He could feel her nails running along his arm, etching fire on his skin. “Imagine what you could do with me as I showed you how to be rich and powerful.”
Raheem struggled to swallow, trying to find his tongue in the clouds seeping through his head. Something else crawled around in the fog, trying to get his attention.
“What do you say?” she purred. “Come. Be my pupil.”
That thing came clear, and he latched on to it. “What’s in it for you?”
The woman delicately raised an eyebrow. “I would have you. And I would enjoy that.” Her voice slid over him like silk. “And we will make each other rich.” Visions of the two of them together filled his head, a fog of urgent temptation. His body urged him to say yes.
His hand slid across his lap, reaching for hers, and she smiled. He felt in passing the lump of the pebble in his pocket. The sensation jarred something loose. “The voices in my head,” he stammered. “They’re you.”
Mirth brushed one corner of her lips. “I’m afraid not. Just one and only today. The rest are all yours.” Despite the smile he could feel her focus redouble. It became urgent, and the appeal ebbed.
Raheem shook his head. “No. I won’t go with you.”
“Why not?” she asked. “You would never be hungry. Or cold. Once your apprenticeship is done, you could possess any woman you wanted. The fear of them would be gone.”
He could taste the food she offered, but it was hollow, an obvious illusion. “I am cold,” he replied, “and hungry. But I’m also happy. I like what I do. It gives me what I need.”
She smiled at him. “But you could be so much more.”
He shook his head. “More than happy? There is nothing more than that.”
“You would be happy and have all of those other things,” she insisted.
“No, I wouldn’t.” He looked back up at her and felt himself smiling. “You aren’t happy, and you couldn’t make me happy.”
“Not happy?” she replied as her temptations turned to ash. “I have everything I could possibly want.”
His smile turned to sorrow without disappearing. “The pain you lured me with is real even if you pretend it isn’t. You lack the one thing you want most. What you lost.”
The woman looked back at him, saying nothing.
“But you’re right,” Raheem continued. “I am hungry.” He reached out and grabbed the sandwich, then stood up. “I’ll be leaving now.” As he turned, he declaimed said in her father’s voice, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”
He didn’t look back to see her expression.