I Am Alive, and I Am Surviving

by Max Asher Miller

The kid shoots from the hip. He can't be older than seventeen, a shoestring of a boy just under six feet tall, oversized white hoodie hanging on his frame like it's a bedsheet and he’s dressed as a ghost. His antagonist's final words drift on the air. "What are you gonna do? Shoot me?"

It is 2:30 a.m. I am across the street, caddy-corner to them, when a gun untucks from beneath the white pullover. The shot rings across the beating heart of Denver, outside Omega Club at the intersection of Blake and 19th. The man grasping at his stomach is perhaps thirty, a solid head taller than his probable killer. His jaw is blocky, and as his muscular body seems to hang weightlessly in the air before dropping, a bright rose of blood erupting across the tight cotton of his tee shirt, I mark him as the type of guy to start fights over spilt beer. His two friends, who had been flanking him like royal guards to their douchebag king, scatter in opposite directions.

The kid might do something rash if he sees any witnesses. I take it as a positive sign for my own wellbeing that he is not shooting at the man's friends.

Going past this intersection was stupid. I've ducked away from shootings outside Omega Club twice before. One, apparently started over a parking spot, ended with five dead and ten injured after both men popped their trunks. 

It's Thursday, teen night at Omega, so I rationalized it as less dangerous. The club's bar is closed, but the kids going to Omega aren't thinking about alcohol, which they smuggle in flasks. They want molly, ketamine, coke, and the same gang heavies who sell to the regular clubbing crowd on Friday are all too willing to take these kids' lunch money. They've got sedatives for sale, too, for the middle-aged perverts who want to slip something in a sixteen-year-old girl's mouth and slip her out the back hanging off their shoulders.

Sheer force of will seems to propel my skateboard, though my lungs feel choked with panic, my legs stiff with fear. I am running late, an unforgivable crime in the ever-watching, ever-tracking eyes of the app that employs me. Still, I should know better than to take shortcuts around here.

The plastic 7-Eleven bag in my hand whistles in the wind as I skate. Someone at The Douglas ordered a frozen pizza, ice cream, Whip-Its, and a tall can of Coors, along with a ten-dollar scratcher, which sounds like wishful thinking to me.

It also sounds like a five-dollar delivery fee and maybe a two-dollar tip.

I turn my board onto Park Avenue at the state Capitol and brace against the chill. It's cold in Denver this winter, though there's no snow, hasn't been any at all this year. The wind tears through layers, rendering my ragged old North Face useless. The shooting has my adrenalin surging, providing me with internal warmth and extra strength on this uphill leg of the delivery.

Sirens wail somewhere behind, and I can't help but smirk. Cops don't respond to shootings or assaults. More likely, some homeless dude is about to get kicked off a public bench. I know better than to rest on park benches between late night deliveries, although if they're not for me, I have no clue who the supposed public is. Funny thing is, people with money won't sit on those benches, either. They probably assume they've been slept on by homeless people.

Police can keep the poor out of Capitol Park, but tent cities line this block, stretching back until they reach the fenced-off steps of the gold-domed Capitol building behind me.

This city gives off the illusion of hospitality. Everyone wants to be your friend until you can't afford craft IPAs, ski gear, and a limited-edition Subaru, then it's a flashlight in your face and, "What are you doing out here at this time of night, son?"

Few lights are on in The Douglas, windows glowing with the saturation of LED blues, reds, and greens. The faint thud of a subwoofer vibrates the concrete from somewhere above. Punching the apartment number into the touchscreen, I hope the customer hasn't forgotten about his order and passed out. I’m relieved when, after a few rings, the lobby door buzzes like a laundry machine and unlocks with a satisfying click.

The creaky elevator hoists me to the eighth floor with a rattle, giving me time at last to take a breather. The vision of the stranger's ruptured body invades my mind like smelling salts. I grind my teeth, tell myself I've seen worse.

Ever since the startup I was working for collapsed under the weight of its own ambitions, hemorrhaging money in development on a product they were unable to define and big tech had no interest in, I've been doing food delivery to pay for my basement bedroom in Cap Hill, some days subsisting off stray fries stolen from orders.

These night shifts can be the most lucrative. Drunk people tip better, and night owl workaholics seem to take pity on me, are willing to pour some gravy off their train for a millennial down on his luck. There's a shared sense among the post-recession generations that even the gainfully employed are only a single bad day away from being me, and they want to store that karma up just in case.

This is my last run of the night. There's a nugget of weed in my bedstand drawer, given in lieu of a tip, and I can already imagine its vapors massaging the image of that pierced and falling body out of my mind.

The elevator doors heave open with a ding, and I emerge into a hallway lit by expiring florescent lights.

This block-sized building was one of many built cheap and quick, then billed as luxury housing for the explosion of young folks who moved here when pot was legalized, before developers and property managers realized that none of us were going to have upwardly mobile jobs to keep up with the steeply increasing rents. The white paint has long ago chipped off the walls in clumps, revealing a patchwork of cement, and the threadbare carpet is stained beyond repair. The hallway smells like tracked-in dirt from winter boots.

The apartment listed on my app is at the very end of an L-shaped corridor. I tuck my board under an arm and knock. I'm about to hang the bag on the handle when it swings down, and the door cracks open just wide enough for an arm to come through.

Another gun, this one pointed at my head.

My heart seizes. It's every gig worker's worst nightmare. No one tips in cash anymore, but people think we're carrying gobs of it.

Maybe it's because my brain spent all its fear chemicals ten minutes ago, maybe because I'm tired, hungry, and exhausted, and I've been doing this for too long and who would even notice if I died anyway. Whatever it is, I remain calm, noting the heavy metal door between us.

Grabbing the handle, I put my entire weight into slamming it.

The crunch of bone reverberates through the doorframe. The pistol drops to the floor at my feet and the man screams, a guttural banshee cry.

I snatch the gun, and I run.

There's a trash chute at the bend of the L. I dash for it, my mind a conflagration of pulsing dread.

The man stumbles out of his apartment, clutching his broken arm. He is shirtless and emaciated; I can see his rib cage, papier-mâché skin plastered over a wire frame.

I throw the gun down the chute and hear the distorted echoes as it bounces toward the dumpster below.

I keep running, can practically feel the maniac breathing down my neck, then my shoe slips off and I stumble.

He bowls me over from behind, grabs me by the hair I haven't had cut in six months with his good hand, and slams my head against the wall. More paint chips away with the impact, and as it flakes to the floor, I see it stained with blood.

Ears ringing, vision doubling, I realize that the man is older than me. He's at least fifty, with deep lines in a face hardened into wild animalism, eyes yellowed in the sclera. And now I can see that he's crying. The tears slide down the lines of his face, dripping onto mine, warm and slick.

My board is lying next to me. I scoop it up by one of the trucks and swing, striking him in the temple with the slim edge of the deck. He falls off me and staggers back a step before toppling, and I crawl backward, pull myself onto my knees over him.

I bring the board down again. The wood cracks and splinters. Impact tremors run through me like a current.

Again. Crack.

Again. Crack.

He stops moving, all but the fingers in his broken arm, which are twitching uncannily, like a half-killed spider.

I think I’m about to catch my breath, but I vomit instead. Monster Energy and stolen fries rain down on my attacker's bare chest. I manage to turn away, and the next several volleys land in the carpet.

As I regurgitate the last of it, all I can think is that there is now less food in my belly.

I rise unsteadily to my feet, my head ringing, and stumble back around the hallway, leaving my board behind.

The 7-Eleven bag is still laying there, lonesome. The pizza has tumbled out of it, and I put it back.

The man's apartment door remains ajar, and I walk inside with his order.

Delivery complete.

The apartment is strikingly bare, devoid of anything suggesting identity. Fast food wrappers litter the kitchen counter. There's a small island with crushed up lines of powder atop its faux granite. A baggie full of a shard-like substance next to that. Meth, most likely. I put his order down next to it.

In the sink, I rinse my mouth to wash out some of the vomit and blood clinging to my palate.

I scour the bathroom cabinets for painkillers, but no dice. The sole object is a roll of toilet paper, not affixed to the holder but stood atop the tank. I use some to dab at the wound on the back of my head.

A door off the bathroom leads to a small bedroom. This shows the most use. A bare mattress, an old, wooden bedstand, a lamp.

I sink into the mattress and lean against the wall. Once I try to be still, to soothe my aching flesh with rest, I find that I am shaking.

I can't help now but to cry, first a sole tear unwillingly spilled despite gritted teeth, then body-wracking sobs. This is what life is, now, what it was long before I was forced to violence. Survival with nothing to survive for. To stop moving, to allow a moment of reprieve, is to let the desolation and exhaustion close in around you.

Crying gives way to a scream that must have been locked inside of me for longer than I knew, a deep, braying bellow, and I turn my anger to the nearest object, the bedstand.

The wood gives way beneath my fists and feet. The satisfaction of destruction is like being in the eye of a hurricane.

As the frame cracks, a single drawer slides out and I rip it away.

A pink sheet of paper flutters to land beside me on the mattress. Immediately, I know it is an eviction notice.

My mugger was 48 hours away from joining the tent camp down the street and his first instinct was to threaten someone barely a rung above him on the sewer ladder. Weren't we all simply trying to see another day, to beat back the machine one cog at a time? All this, over a few groceries.

I ball the notice up in my hand and throw it at the remains of the bedstand.

Back in the kitchen, I pull the scratcher out of the 7-Eleven bag, which is now wet inside from the pizza box, and file the silver coating off the squares with my thumbnail. Silver flakes cling amid the dirt under my nail beds. Three Monopoly cars in a row. Fifty dollars.

This world has a cynical sense of humor.

In the hallway, I peek around the corner and the heat of fear rises in the skin of my face until I see nothing under the buzzing flicker of florescent lights but my mangled skateboard and the drying remnants of my sick. The only traces of the man who attacked me are a few drops of blood leading to the elevator. To avoid the scene entirely, I head for the staircase and take it a flight down to the seventh floor.

Before I can hit the call button on the elevator there, the doors ding and open. A group stumbles out, three girls and two guys. They're drunk and giggling, their cheeks ruddy and hair tousled from the night's exploits. One guy—you can tell he's their de facto leader—is taking a swig from a bottle of vodka when he sees me.

"You look like shit, bro," he says, grinning.

I look up at him. He looks kind, with hazel eyes that search me like a spotlight, and I can tell his bluntness is the liquor talking rather than malice.

"Yeah," I say. "I know."

He offers me the bottle with a wry look. "Come party with us." 

The others glance at him, then at me. If this dude says I'm cool, I'm cool. One of the girls, a bottle blonde with hot pink tips and a halter top that says, Some bitches fuck bitches, get over it, smiles at me.

Her smile and his pierce me like twin lasers. Fuck, when was the last time someone smiled at me like that? I live alone, deliver food all day and night to people I never see. It's something I've accepted, that isolation, one more wall erected in service of survival.

Except I'm not surviving, am I? If what it means to stay alive is never to look into the eyes of my fellow man, to serve but never see them, then maybe I haven't survived. Maybe, in a way, I died a long time ago.

I take the proffered bottle and gulp like it's a healing potion, letting the stinging warmth flow through me. "What the hell. I'm down. Thanks."

With his left hand he takes the vodka back, extending his right. I meet his grip.

"Teddy," he says.

I introduce myself, and as we head down the hall, I meet Emerald (pink tips), Glenn, Tina, and Faye, the latter two of whom are, of course, best friends and love 30 Rock.

The subwoofer I heard earlier pumps 808 drums into our feet as we approach the party. Ryan introduces me to the already blacked-out girl who answers the door, and I am handed a shot of tequila as I cross the threshold into a cacophony of sound and spectacle.

Someone has a DJ board set up at the back of the living room, and a dance floor has formed between the couches. Lights melt in hallucinogenic shades from grow-lamp purple to neon green, and a couple emerges under their glow from a bathroom at the end of a hallway, wiping their noses.

I haven't been anywhere like this in a very long time, and for a moment the notion of being surrounded by people feels overwhelming, the idea of belonging among them alien, but before I can dwell on it, I am pulled by Teddy and Emerald into the living room and swept away by the beat.

The DJ spins her hands across the decks like a chef over a busy stove. Her energy is magnetic, expressed in electric rhythm, and I find my body compelled to contort, feet bidden to shuffle and box. I am only here, with bass pumping and bodies around me, and we are in ecstasy. I churn in the mix, whip my unkempt hair, melt into the moment.

I am alive, and I am surviving.

How long it's been when the police arrive, drawn by the oscillations of the sub if not the investigation of an assault, I don't know, but the blueish hint of dawn traces the Rocky Mountain skyline outside the windows far beyond. Whoever answered the door tries frantically to stop our noise and motion, but no one notices until two squat, uniformed beasts are standing in the living room and shining their flashlights through the syncopated anarchy.

The music stops, the silence like a vacuum, and the room suddenly feels colder. I feel the bottom give out from my uninhibition, euphoria sucked through a straw. It can't end yet. It won't.

I face the bastards head on and keep dancing.