by Robert Laughlin

My job brings me to the old neighborhood, the very last place I want to see again.  But I’m not ready for custodial care, and the pharmacy needs a delivery person familiar with the streets of Englewood, so here I am.  Tony gets my cart out of the delivery truck and sets it on the sidewalk.  He gives me a gentlemanly (and useful) assist up the crumbling curb.  I’m starting on South Green, and he’ll meet me at my last stop, three hours from now.

I wheel the cart up the front walk of my first customer.  It’s a ritzy house for this vicinity, a big stucco bungalow kept in perfect shape—not easy considering what Chicago winters do to stucco.  There’s a face moving behind the faceted windows in the front door, so I know I’m expected.  I get the cold pack and receipt book out of the cart, and make my precarious way up the front steps.

“Mrs. Redding?”

“Yes.”  She’s an old white woman, probably one of the few holdouts from the white flight of the seventies.

“I’m from Lee Pharmacy.”  In case the sign on the cart, THIS MESSENGER DOES NOT CARRY OPIATES, wasn’t obvious enough.  “I have your insulin.”  I can’t say ‘insulin’ without slurring the ‘s’, but Mrs. Redding doesn’t think I’m drunk.  Like the tic in my left cheek, faulty speech coordination is a classic sign of someone unlucky enough to be a fave.  She pays me in cash, and I can see that the diabetes has cost her the tips of two fingers on her right hand.  I give her the cold pack of insulin, and ask her to write out the receipt because I don’t trust my own steadiness.

My next customer is three blocks away, and anyone can see that I need the cart more to lean on than to carry my wares.  Crossing streets is a major hassle.  The city fathers erected new civic buildings in Englewood to show the world their concern; putting handicapped ramps on the street corners never entered the city fathers’ heads.  I never spent time in this particular corner of Englewood, but the street scene meets my expectations:  untended lawns, old pavement, shuttered houses, more shuttered businesses, gang graffiti everywhere.  This is the tail end of the morning rush hour, and I don’t see much street or sidewalk traffic; Englewood isn’t known for its spirit of industry.  Almost the only people I see are three men walking into a card room.  That’s the Englewood mentality:  live for now, never mind future consequences to you or anyone else.  Cut school, skip work, do drugs, gamble your earnings, have unprotected sex, let your kids fend for themselves.  I thought I’d escaped.  I was in med school, and...well, nobody needs a doctor who can’t hold a scalpel.  Now I deliver medicines in a state-supported program for faves who still have something to give to society.  As a teenager, I was afraid to walk this neighborhood alone; rape is another part of the Englewood mentality.  I’m unafraid now.  I’ve taken too much neural damage and I’m no longer anyone’s sexual fantasy, even in my knit blouse and summer skirt.  Besides that, I’m hardened to another kind of rape.

The fear returns when I get to my destination, an old frame two-story boarding house.  Druggies sometimes take these over completely.  Despite the sign on my cart, I’m concerned about the possibility of a bushwhacking until I look at my customer’s prescription; it’s the same cocktail of benzos and anticonvulsants that I’ve been taking.  I leave the cart on the front walk and go in, grateful I don’t have to climb those oak stairs to a second-story room.  At least forty-five seconds after my knock, the door is opened by a little guy in his thirties.  He’s using a walker, and his right eye is blinking uncontrollably; I suppose he tapes it shut when he wants to sleep.  He pays with a typed check signed with an X, and doesn’t ask for a receipt.  In fact, he doesn’t say a word to me—because he can’t talk anymore?  I hurry out of there, afraid to think of it.

At a street corner halfway to my third customer, I hear a loud noise that might be the horn of an approaching big rig.  I look all four ways, and see nothing on wheels for two blocks in any direction.  I hear the sound again, but it has no directional fix.  Then I place it:  the low-pitched whistle of an iron works near my childhood home.  I remember it sounding four times a day before the place went bust in my first year of high school.  Wonderful, I’ve just had my first auditory hallucination.  I’ll report it to my therapist when I get home, and he’ll tell me I can’t be trusted to go out on my own anymore, but this day’s work I will finish.  I didn’t hear the whistle again before arriving at a stand of brick row houses with a whitewashed end wall.  It isn’t covered only in whitewash; something there is in Englewood that does not love an ungraffitied wall.  I get out the customer’s medication without checking to see what it is, and hang for dear life onto the iron railing on my six steps up to the door.

“I’m from Lee Pharmacy, Mrs. Hillman.”  She’s an aproned, housewifely type; I hear small children laughing and running somewhere out of sight.

“You must be mistaken.  I didn’t send for anything.”

“You didn’t?  Let me check, ma’am.”  The address is right; my addled brain hasn’t led me to the wrong door.  The medication was ordered by Vergil Hillman, and it’s...  “No mistake, ma’am.  I have an order for fifty units of Ritalin.”  ‘Ritalin’ comes out completely unslurred, and Mrs. Hillman’s face falls.  Ritalin is what coke addicts take to fight off cravings.

“No!  Why, he promised me...he...take ‘em back!”

I take a half-step back from the slamming door, and carry the undelivered order down to my cart.

I start pushing my cart to the next delivery, and see a sport-utility swerving toward me, the driver and sole occupant with an oblivious expression, ecstasy and excruciation mixed together, that I’ve imagined on my own face so many times.  I’m not hallucinating this; he’s a fave.  There’s no parked car between us, just a fire hydrant.  I release the cart and make a staggering sprint back to the row house steps.  I hear grinding metal behind me, twice, three times.  Medicinal confetti cascades down with water from the sidewalk fountain, and I turn and see the sport-utility at rest, its front end dug into a lamppost.

The cart is in a mangled heap two houses down, and I go to the driver’s door with the ponderous step of someone wearing snowshoes.  The airbag has deflated, and I can see that the driver/victim is a brawny, balding man in a polo shirt.  It surprises me that he’s still allowed to drive a motor vehicle.  He’s slumped against the door, out cold; I can’t tell if that’s from the impact or from being ridden.  I debate whether I should try opening the door, and it pounces on me—not the same one that had ridden the driver, that one would be in no condition—it’s another one that chooses this chance moment to take me.  I have barely enough time to lie down on the sidewalk, far enough away from anything to avoid damaging my flailing limbs.  This’ll hurt you more than it does me...that was my last articulate thought for the next five minutes.

From the void comes the usual clutch of memories, vague but still terrifying:  people and places from my past recast in awful scenarios; sense impressions from parts of my body that couldn’t produce them or from surrounding space.  I don’t know where I am at the moment, only that I’m alive.  It feels as though my whole nervous system has been played like a harp, and so roughly that some strings were broken.  Continuing the analogy, I know that the strings set up vibrations that had smashed the harpist’s bones.  Invisible, intangible as dust motes in a shaft of sunlight, the invaders have hagridden almost every man, woman and child on Earth.  How they communicate is a guess, but they do, and they choose the few who give them the most intense high for riding again and again.  For me, it was every few days at first.  It’s been almost a month since my last attack, and I know why:  the invaders are fewer, far fewer.  The high they seek is killing them.  This isn’t how we ever beat an alien invasion in the movies...

I come to on the hot, hard pavement, aware of an ambulance siren getting closer.  I open my eyes and look around.  A police officer is applying Jaws of Life to the sport-utility.  Another officer, one who looks fresh out of the academy, is standing above me and notices when I move my hand.

“Did he hit you?”

“No, an invader attacked me”—that’s what I mean to say.  What comes out isn’t intelligible, because my tongue is like a slab of hardening tar in my mouth.  This is the end.  I’ve taken too much neural damage for any kind of work; they’ll send me to a nursing home.  My facial muscles haven’t stopped taking orders, though; the last thing I see is the young cop looking down at me, full of pity because he knows what happened to me and what I’m feeling.

When I come to again, the siren is much louder and I’m lying on a soft fabric-covered surface that wobbles under me.  The sport-utility driver is riding in the ambulance with me, still unconscious.  The ambulance is a converted station wagon, and I see tall buildings flitting past through both side windows.  I’m on South Michigan Avenue, en route to the special treatment center on West Division.  The wreckage of my memory isn’t so complete that I can’t make the connection when I see the Lexington Park Condos looming up.  They’re on the site formerly occupied by the Lexington Hotel, Al Capone’s old HQ.  I don’t care that the sounds forced up from my lungs no longer sound like laughter.  Big Al was more powerful than any local politician because of his revenue from booze, narcotics, protection, loan sharking, gambling...and prostitution.  His pimps first conned, then tyrannized comely young girls into servicing male customers, not least Al himself.  And one of those girls got VD and passed it on while Al was having his good time.

I can hear the ambulance drivers up front, talking in hushed voices.  They’re wondering about me and those weird sounds I’m making.  Let them; it doesn’t matter if they get it.  When she was too old for whoring and rotted out from disease, Al’s fave must have gotten quite a charge out of it when the big man was released from his island retreat, ravaged and praying to die.  And when he finally did, she probably danced a palsied jig on his Mount Carmel grave.  Al ran the town for a while, but the white slave was the survivor.

     Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. His sf stories "In the Evening Made" and "The Spirits of '26" are storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories. "Fave" is his first story to be published in Chrome Baby.