From a nozzle, black paint eases along the curves of a fear-stricken Marilyn Monroe apparent. Blonde curls lick her earlobes, framing classic gold earrings. Rouge highlights her widened, luscious lips. And pristine eyebrows lay stark against her broad forehead. But that’s where the similarities end. She’s her own woman, dressed to the nines in anguish.
Levi shakes another can. Blue this time. His fingers splay on the unmarked metal as he leans in to meet her eyes. “Hey beautiful,” he whispers, laying down an outline in her massive pupils. “Hold on a bit longer. You’re almost done.”
‘I’ll never understand why you talk to them.’
His hand hesitates. Break-ups—they always blot out his soul. The only memories that remain are the ones that stained so black they’ve consumed every other color. Dropping to his knees, Levi slumps his back against the billboard post beneath his masterpiece. His work is always above him, his family, his girlfriend. It’s no wonder she took her chances with anyone else.
Tossing the can in one hand, he glares across the cityscape. The music pounding through his headphones illuminates the darkness of the world. Each lyric pulses a new layer of hatred. He deserves better than she gave him, than everyone gives him. With a jerk, the blue can thrashes through the air. He watches it disappear below, clattering into the shadows.
The sound settles on distracted ears. His head bounces to the beat, foot matching the rhythm. Marilyn’s counterpart is going unfinished—again. Since Georgia left him, he hasn’t been able to complete a single piece. The very thought of that is infuriating for him. His hands feel tainted now.
Slipping on one strap of his backpack, Levi gives ol’ Marilyn another once over. She was set to be a beauty, but now her ghostly eyes are going to haunt his nightmares for the rest of the week. Pledging to return someday, he fist bumps the corner of her plush lips. It’s unreturned. But it doesn’t seem to bother him as he shoulders the other strap.
He turns to drop back down to the street, but instead, he drops right where he stands. In the alleyway below him, there are two bumbling drunks. Incapacitated or not, he’s not looking to get caught by anyone. Tugging the headphones from his ears, he listens to them pass by. The crunch of rocks beneath their feet, the occasional stumble against a wall, boisterous laughter—and then a shout.
Surprised, Levi leans back up to peer down at them. One of the drunks has a gun on the other. His hands are shaking with anger or fear; it’s hard to know which. But either way, his finger is vibrating against the trigger.
Levi sinks further down, fumbling for his phone. It reads 6:10. He dials 911, his own trembling fingers barely useable. It rings. And rings. And rings. The anticipation is seizing his heart, chewing on each fleshy vestibule. It doesn’t matter to him that he was out here playing rebel illegally. There’s a life at stake, and if there’s a chance he can save it he’s going to pursue it, with vigor.
“911, what’s your emergency?”
“There’re two drunks here,” Levi whispers, “and one of them has a g-gun on the other.”
“Okay. Let’s start with your location.”
“Y-yeah. Uhm.” He squints at the street signs in the distance, but he can’t make them out. This is a new haunt for him. The devastation over Georgia had fogged over his brain. Now, he has no idea where he is. “I’m not sure. Let me check on my ph-phone.” Rushing to minimize the call, he accidentally hangs up. No. No, no, no.
9-1-1. He redials. This time, they answer immediately. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he apologizes. “I-I was already talking to an operator, but I—”
“—I’m here. Take a moment to breathe and then I’ll be ready for the location.” Levi heaves a wavering breath, his heart pounding. But he forces himself to open the maps app on his phone, check the intersection where he’s hiding, and then calmly recite the streets in turn.
“Thank you. Do you know if anyone is injured?”
“N-not yet,” Levi replies. He closes his eyes, trying to garner the willpower to look down on the scene below again. After a three count, he pushes up on the ledge. The gun-wielding drunk is still holding it at arms-length, muzzle to the chest of his partner. After the exclamation earlier, none of his slurs have been audible. He’s in a mumbling rage.
“Good. Are you s—”
The gun smokes. It’s victim slides down to the ground, smearing blood in his wake. The wielder staggers a few steps back, looks into the mouth of the gun, and then laughs. The sound leaves Levi numb, his mouth wide open. That man really shot his partner, his drinking buddy, his friend. In disbelief, Levi’s phone slips right through his nervous fingers.
Clang. Clang. Clang.
It hits every metal fixture on the way down. Their gazes follow the phone to the dirt and then lift to meet each other. Levi runs. He dashes past Marilyn, rushing to the door leading down from the roof. But as soon as he wraps his fingers around the handle, he finds it locked. If the killer climbs up the fire escape to him, the same way Levi had, he’s dead.
Clambering around the small door enframement, Levi tucks himself between two vents. It’s not much of a hiding place, but the killer was awfully drunk. Maybe he won’t have the wherewithal to search thoroughly. Please. In the silence, he can now hear each dreadful step up the metal ladder. The killer is heavy, his weight causing it to groan. But he’s climbing with little effort, considering his intoxication.
‘One of these days, your art’s going to get you in trouble, Levi. I can’t take the stress of worrying about your well-being every night. I don’t even know where you are half the time. That’s why I have to do this. You know that’s why.’
Of course. On the verge of death, his mind is reliving the memory of his break-up. It doesn’t matter that she had good reason, nor does it matter that the memory is entirely too relevant. It’s painful just to remember her face. He loved her. Loves. Maybe loves?
The sound echoes across the rooftop. That’s it, the killer’s now on the same ground as he is. Heaving in a deep breath, Levi purses his lips together. The whir of the vents should be just enough to cover for any other noise he might make. Should be. But it’s not enough to drown out each pain-staking step the killer takes towards him.
With each step, Levi’s heart beats closer to the rhythm. He can’t breathe. Not yet. But his lungs are starting to constrict. His eyes are beginning to water. The fear of asphyxiation is looming in the back of his mind. And the killer keeps walking. How many rooftops has he now traversed? There’s no way he’s not to Levi’s side yet. From his pack, Levi retrieves a can of red paint. It’s not pepper spray, but it’ll have to do. He can’t hold his breath anymore.
He gasps for air.
“There you ar—”
“—AH!” Levi adorns his cry in rouge. It screams out of its nozzle, matching his own high-pitched whimper. His assailant flails, covering his face with both hands. But Levi won’t stop. No, the red paint continues spitting until the very last drop. And then it sputters out, a stiff corpse clutched in stiff fingers.
“Kid,” the man before him grumbles. His once blue uniform is soiled, a blood bath he hadn’t intended to shower in. His hair is plastered to his forehead, dripping streaks of red down his fuming face. And his flashlight is dim, half-soaked with the rest of him. “Are you the one who called?”
“Y-yes,” Levi admits.
“We found your phone in the alley. We assumed you might be up here.” The officer holds out his shattered phone. He’s straining, every movement a bit forced. But it’s hardly unusual to do so after climbing six flights.
“D-did you see that man?” Levi wonders, hurrying to his feet. He accepts his phone before hugging his backpack to his chest. It’s his safety net. It always has been. “He chased me up here after shooting that gu—”
“—We didn’t find anyone. Body or otherwise,” the officer explains. He rubs at the paint near his eyes, but simply smears it further into his hair. “Just your phone. And your ‘art.’ Were you going for Marilyn? Because you’re not quite there. She had smaller eyes.”
“No. Just something like her,” Levi whispers. “Are you sure you didn’t see a body? I can show you exactly where it was. There was blood.” The officer sets his jaw, but gestures for Levi to lead the way. They cross the roof to the fire escape and clamber their way down to the alleyway. There, Levi finds another officer, who fails to hold the snort of laughter that bursts up his throat at the sight of his partner.
Levi ignores them. He jogs to where he saw the man fall before hesitating. There’s no blood. Not even a small trace of it. No body. No bullet. No gun. No killer. He knows what he saw. Kicking through the trash on the ground, he begs for evidence. If there’s nothing to prove a crime…he glances over his shoulder at the two policemen. They’re going to think he prank-called them. Now, not only will he get arrested for graffiti, but prank calling 911.
“Look, kid,” the unsoiled officer begins, “it’s been a long night. Something obviously spooked you, but there’s nothing here. I mean, except for your graffiti. You should use that talent on a canvas. I know a couple of art teachers that would love you—my wife included. Let us take you down to the station, give you a small punishment, and I’ll introduce you to my wife. Deal?”
No. No deal. Levi steps away from the wall. Someone died.
“He was here,” he pleads. “Don’t you have cameras?” The officer sighs. He glances at his red companion and then falls in line beside Levi. They both stare at the wall, as though waiting for something to come crawling through. When it doesn’t, the officer rests a hand on Levi’s shoulder.
“We’ll look into it, is that enough?”
“Come on. It sounds like it’s been a long night for all of us,” the officer leads Levi to their vehicle but stops. “Hey, you look kind of familiar.” He holds Levi at arms-length before snapping his fingers. “Your my niece’s old beau, aren’t you? Le…Le—Lester?”
“Ah! I won’t tell her, promise.” The officer winks at him. Great. Now the whole school is going to hear he called 911 on himself. No one will care about the true story. And Georgia will likely lead the charge. She’s a one-girl rumor mill. It was always cute before. Dramatic, but cute. Now, it’ll feel a bit more agonizing.
Georgia’s uncle then pushes Levi into the back seat, gently, but forcibly all the same. His red partner is quick to join them, buckling himself into the driver’s seat. His eyes are still shining with ferocity, while Georgia’s uncle is wearing an innocent smile.
“What are we going to do with you?” he sighs. “Georgia’s always gone for bad boys.” A whispy laugh follows the joke. His gaze locks on Levi’s.
Those eyes are intense, or rather, intent.
And that laugh is grating.
Glancing down at his cracked screen, Levi pauses. 6:15? He’d barely just made the call five minutes ago. How had the officers gotten there in minutes? How had her uncle seen his art when he was waiting by the car the entire time? How would a drunken killer have any time to clean up a crime scene after chasing Levi to the roof?
And the laugh.
“Stop antagonizing him,” the red officer barks. “Kid’s had enough for one night. Between yo-your jokes and his delusions.” He chokes out a heavy cough. Deep beneath the red paint on the officer’s chin, there’s real blood. And as Levi’s eyes widen, Georgia’s uncle’s do, too.
Levi’s gaze narrows in on the muzzle resting between his eyes.
“He’s a kid!”
“Shut up and drive.” Her uncle swings his gun to meet the red officer’s temple. “I was going to let him off, but…he’s a little too defiant for his own good.” They’re drunk. They’re drunk and driving Levi god knows where, while one of them slings a gun with reckless abandon. For the first time in his life, Levi’s courage is going to be the death of him. And now, maybe the last time.
For a brief moment, the red officer meets Levi’s gaze in the mirror. He signals something with his eyes. But it’s unreadable. He’s dying. Even if he doesn’t understand the communication, Levi has to do something. He flubs for words.
“If you’re going to kill me,” he pipes up, “can you at least tell Georgia I’m sorry?”
“So she knows it was me?” Her uncle guffaws. “Thought that’d work, did you?” He twists his gun from the red officer to Levi again. “Thanks for making up my mind. I wasn’t sure which one of you to kill first.”
The car swerves.
Levi braces himself against the door.
His body jolts with the impact. Over the hiss of steam seeping from the hood, he can hear gagging. The red officer is dead, without a doubt. But Georgia’s uncle is clinging to life, blood pooling in his bottom lip. As is the car, which is bent all the way to the dash, but still sputtering; a thick, old light post teetering against it.
For the second time tonight, Levi runs.
It doesn’t matter if her uncle dies there and can’t even follow him. It doesn’t matter if her uncle has no intention to chase him. He’s scared. And he can’t stay there.
He runs until his legs give out, dropping him at the corner gas station just a few blocks from his house. It’s not much consolation, but it’s enough. It’s familiar. That’s all he needs right now. Curling himself behind the stacks of firewood bound in plastic out front, Levi sucks in a sharp breath.
Digging it out of the pocket he stowed it in, he drops it to the ground and smashes his heel into the middle crack. Will they be able to trace him? Will they think that he’s the reason those two officers ended up in a crash? He didn’t do it. He didn’t kill them. They were crazy. They were drunk. They killed themselves! He just—
His heart stops.
“Levi! Are you alright?” Georgia rushes to him, resting her hands on both his knees. “Your parents called me and asked me if I’d seen you. We’ve been searching for you for hours.” He’d love to answer her, to tell her he’s perfectly fine and was out painting. But he can’t. His throat isn’t even functioning anymore. His lungs are burning. His body aches. And he’s closer to urinating himself than he’s ever been.
“You’re really pale.” Her fingers trace down his cheek before resting on his forehead. “And you’re burning up. Where have you been? You can tell me. I won’t tell anyone.” He can’t even bring himself to gesture at his backpack.
As she leans a bit closer, her knees crack on his phone. “Oh! Sorry. I didn’t see it.” She rushes to gather its remains in her hands and tries to piece them back together. It’s no use.
“Georgia.” Her name finally graces his lips.
“What, babe?” That one word is enough to give him the strength to answer her. She’s the only one he trusts to believe him. She’s the only one who will understand his courageous follow-through. And she’s the only one who hates her family more than he hates his own. Her uncle be damned.
“I witnessed a murder.”