Match-Man by Alex Norton


Kev started seeing them around the corner of 6th Street and Prospero. He assumed they were hallucinations at first, but they also looked familiar.

He was freezing, face numb, hands stuffed so far down into his pockets they were almost in his sneakers. The holes in his jeans were like wind tunnels. Blood was frozen on his temple. A fluffy, prismatic halo surrounded every light, the city street curiously tilted.

He probably had a concussion.

The Christmas music, discordant and tinny, seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. Bells on shop doors jangled, horns honked, people moved around him on the sidewalk like mighty waves around a tiny, rolling pebble.

Freezing rain pelted down sideways, stinging like bitty bullets, slicing tiny cuts into his exposed skin. It covered the dirty snow on the sidewalk and turned the concrete into an ice rink. He slipped as he walked, slipped again, slipped, and bumped into a lamppost.

He stopped, holding on to the lamppost like it was a life raft. The music whirled around him, muffled conversations of passersby adding to his confusion and nausea. He closed his eyes, trying to clear his head. Everything hurt. There wasn’t anything that didn’t hurt now.

He shouldn’t have done it. He’d broken his own rule, the last one he’d had left. Kids with empty pockets and little spiders under their skin couldn't afford rules, he’d told himself. Now he was sorry.

When he’d first landed on the streets, he’d found ways to survive. It had been surprisingly easy. Too young to get a job or anything, he’d fallen right in with some guys who were super happy—in love, really—with having a nice, middle-class blond boy to run errands for them. He picked up and delivered for them. He was their lookout, their runner, their mascot. They’d kept him clothed, fed, supplied with phones, cash in his pocket. Girls too, sometimes. Only when Bruno was feeling generous with his stable full of box. But having a little fun with Bruno’s girls had just shown Kev that there were certain things he, personally, would never do for money. How low could you go, right?

He had an angel’s face, a sweet smile, an easy way about him that Bruno liked. He and his boys thought Kev was funny with his middle-school jokes, lime soda addiction, and gleeful pyromania. He loved to burn: It made him feel good. He could make anything burn. Tires, mailboxes, his neighbor’s garage, and Melissa Ganko’s locker, among other things.

His school had kicked him out for this predilection, and his mother had tried to send him to military school, so he’d walked out. No one understood this need he had but Bruno. He called him Match-Man—his little Match-Man—and gave him stuff to burn. Bruno brought him matches from fancy restaurants to encourage his Little Match-Man’s favorite hobby.

He even knew about the accident.

But Bruno liked him just the way he was. He didn’t judge.

For two years, he was Match-Man, not Kevin or Kev. One of the cool kids. Bruno’s favorite.

“Just leave the product alone,” Bruno had said. “That’s the only rule in this house.” Kev could do whatever else he wanted, but no drugs. Bruno needed him healthy, stable, attractive—not twitchy and strung-out looking. Just a nice, normal kid, hanging around at the skate park or the school, looking innocent and happy, taking money, and delivering Bruno’s products without looking out of place or suspicious.

But of course, he’d had to try it. Just a sampling. He was around it all day, so what was the harm? A little in the nose, on the gums, a few pills, a needle between the toes. One of Bruno’s girls showed him how to hide the marks like that, between the toes.

There was so much of it, how could they miss any?

He’d been so stupid.

They kept track. Of course they’d noticed.

He was lucky they hadn’t killed him. Bruno liked him too much to kill him, to have him disfigured or hurt.

“Sweet kid,” he’d said, shaking his head. “You dumb fuckin’ kid, Match-Man. You had one rule to follow, and boy you fucked up, fucked up real bad.” Bruno had shed real tears of disappointment that night. He shoved a bunch of product into an old paper bag—a whole pharmacy’s worth—and placed it in Kev’s hands before ordering Metro and Jay to throw him down the stairs and into the street.

“Kill yourself,” Bruno’s voice had boomed down, sounding out for all the world like a sorrowful papa. “Go ahead and kill yourself with that shit, Little Match-Man. Don’t make me do it.” The door at the top of the stairwell had slammed shut, and that was the end of that. He had the clothes he was wearing and a bag of assorted drugs—that was all. Not even his skateboard.

If he’d been smart, he would have sold the drugs, taken the money, and left town on a bus. Gone somewhere sunlit, sandy, and warm, like Florida. He could’ve lived on the street in a different city without sleeting ice that scratched his face like cat’s claws, but the temptation to stay high for as long as he could was too strong. He’d gone through the bag in less than two weeks. Then it was time to do whatever it took to get more.

As it turned out, he’d been wrong. There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to keep the spiders from crawling.

He heard a high-pitched twitter and opened his eyes. Two women hurried by, holding their purses tightly against their sides. Their lashes skittered to and away from Kev, buzzing like flies as they passed, chittering to one another. Two spooked little birdies.

I’m so scary now, he thought and laughed. The laugh came out funny, and he wanted to stop, but it was too ridiculous: the idea of him being scary. There was almost nothing left of him. His phlegmy giggle was hard to reign in.

He managed to stop, though, when he heard a whisper. He stopped to listen.

Scary.

He looked ahead, squinting. Among the pedestrians hurrying through the inclement weather stood a small, scrawny figure, statue-still and staring at him. It had the impression of a girl, a really skinny girl, dressed in torn leggings and an old fishing hat. Her mouth hung open, missing teeth, blue gums. Her eyes were shiny. He’d seen eyes like that on night-time trashcan raiders: racoons, and opossums.

It’s a concussion, he told himself. I’m hurt. I’m seeing things.

There was a halo of light around everything but the girl. Around her there was a black hole—a syrupy darkness.

Scary, she said. Her mouth didn’t move, but he knew it was her.

Okay, he thought. He pushed away from the lamppost, turned, and walked unsteadily back the way he’d come, stumbling around the next corner. Restaurant and shop windows glowed like fish tanks, warm activity swimming behind them. Happy shoppers, happy eaters. Christmas trees and holiday lights everywhere, heels clicking by, and shopping bags rustling. His head swam.

He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, sparing a look behind him. She wasn’t there, hadn’t followed. He sagged a little in relief, crossing his arms, and peeked into a window out of the corner of his eyes, seeking asylum. The people inside laughed and flashed their forks full of comfort, drank from glasses and steaming mugs. He licked his lips.

God, he was so hungry. Claws scratched inside his belly.

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