Laurence had been mugged before, when he was thirteen or fourteen. His reaction now was somewhat the same as it had been then; a strange sensation that he wasn't in any real danger.
But it wasn't exactly the same. Last time, his emotions had felt frozen, like a gum that has been given a local anaesthetic. This time, however, he felt entirely and utterly calm. He somehow knew that nothing bad was going to happen to him.
What happened next surprised him as much as it did the mugger.
He dipped his head, away from the point of the weapon-- which he felt was sure was a screwdriver-- lashed out with his heel against the bottom of the man's shin, and spun around.
The man was falling over, and there was a comically surprised look on his face. Laurence was surprised to see how young he was-- little more than a boy. He was wearing tracksuit bottoms and a baseball jacket, and he was remarkably well-groomed.
Before he had hit the ground, Laurence had already stepped forward and kicked him savagely in the head.
The impact was so powerful that Laurence's foot rebounded, and the young man's head flew back with such force that Laurence felt surprised it didn't come clean off. His instep had landed right on the man's face, and blood exploded from his nose.
Laurence laughed out loud, and stepped forward to take another kick. But the man parried his shoe with two palms, and then he was scrambling to his feet.
As soon as he could stand up, he turned and ran. Laurence heard him sobbing.
Laurence stood in the silence of the town centre, feeling--
Exhilarated. There was no doubt about it. His heart was pumping and he felt adrenaline sloshing all around his system. He felt like he was flying. He felt like there was no reason to be afraid ever again.
"PUNK!!" he shouted out after the mugger, who had disappeared from view. His words echoed in the empty alley-way.
Then, belatedly, he felt a twinge of horror-- subdued horror, but horror nonetheless. He had actually enjoyed kicking that man in the face. It was one of the greatest thrills he'd had in his life.
And-- how had he done it? Laurence had only been in two fights in his life, and he had been trounced in both of them. He was the furthest thing in the world from a street fighter or an action hero. But it had felt so easy. He never would have believed it was so easy to take on a thug.
There's something funny going on here, Laurence, he thought. You certainly didn't knock that guy down on your own steam. You know that, don't you?
Was it really so wrong to feel good, though? He had spent his entire life being frightened of something or other. He had almost ended his life through fear, ridiculous as it seemed. The thought of not having to be scared any more was intoxicating.
A delicious breeze passed through the alley-way, and Laurence found himself trying to remember why he was there at all.
The Paracetamol. Karla. Right.
He ambled through the alley-way, almost hoping that some other punk would come to confront him. He thought of the surprised face of the thug with relish. Really, was there anything to be sorry about? These people were low-lives.
The chemist's was called Kerrigan's. It was a tiny place, and-- aside from a Chinese restaurant several doors away-- the only place that was open in the whole street.
When he walked in, the guy at the counter didn't look up. He was a young guy, perhaps in his late teens. He was thin to the point of scrawiness, with short sandy hair. He was wearing a Credence Clearwater Revival tee-shirt. And he was writing something out on a loose leaf of paper.
"Hi", said Laurence.
The kid raised his hand, palm outwards. "Hang on", he said. "Just give me a few seconds."
The scribbled a few words, and then ran the pen along the end of the page in a sweeping stroke.
"Got it!", he said, looking up, his face almost radiant. His eyes were a misty blue. "I'm sorry about that. How can I help you, sir?"
"Paracetamol", said Laurence, rather taken aback. The rush of the fight had suddenly evaporated, and he felt like the same old Laurence-- or almost the same old Laurence.
"Sure thing", said the kid, still grinning, and reaching behind him. "What kind?"
Laurence hadn't thought about this. He rarely took medication of any kind. "Give me a box of every kind that you have", he said. "That should cover it."
"Ah", said the kid, his face falling a little. "No can do, I'm afraid. I can't sell you more than 24 tablets. I'm sorry."
Laurence made a face. "A friend told me to get some for her headache", he said. "I don't know what sort she needs, though. Does it make a difference?"
"Yeah, it does", said the kid. "Can't you phone her and find out?"
"No", said Laurence. "Our phones are...I mean, my phone is out of battery."
"Screw it", said the kid, taking box after box from the shelves. "I can see that you're on the level."
More than I can myself, Laurence thought. But he didn't say anything.
The kid was still smiling. The hour of night, and the loneliness of the shop, and the gesture of trust from the kid, made Laurence feel that some gesture of friendliness was called for.
"What were you writing?" he asked.
"A poem", said the kid, grinning up at him. There was no trace of bashfulness, no feigning of reluctance to talk about it. "I've been working on it all night and I just got the last words out when you walked in."
"Do you often write poetry at work?"
"At work", said the kid, ringing up the boxes and placing them in front of Laurence. "At home. On the bus. Sometimes in class, even. I've been writing poems almost non-stop since I was fourteen."
"Wow", said Laurence, as the kid produced a paper bag and started to pile the Paracetamol into it. "What do you write about?"
"Beauty" said the kid, solemnly. He looked straight into Laurence's eyes as he spoke. "The beauty that's everywhere."
"You see beauty everywhere?"
Laurence didn't answer for a few moments. "Sometimes", he said weakly. "Sometimes I have real trouble seeing it, though." He felt strangely confessional.
"That's why I write my poems", said the kid. "To remind everybody of the beauty that's there. To get them to see the beauty that's there. To open their eyes." He spoke with disarming seriousness, without any hint of irony or conceit.
"That's good", said Laurence. "I mean, really-- that's good. More people should do that."
"It comes to fifteen twenty", said the kid.
Laurence reached into his trousers pocket and produced the Monstrous Mystery Card. He handed it to the kid.
The kid just looked at it. There was a confused and embarrassed expression. "Uh..." he said.
"What's wrong?", asked Laurence, wondering if his luck was about to turn.
Then the kid seemed to snap out of his indecision, smiled, and took the card. He still looked confused.
"That's the damnedest thing", said the kid. "For a second there, I thought your credit card was--"
"What?", asked Laurence.
"I don't know", said the kid, laughing at his own bafflement. "Something weird. Something really weird."
He ran the card through his credit card machine. "PIN?"
Without thinking, Laurence leaned forward and keyed a four digit PIN into the machine, then pressed Enter. He felt no doubt that it would be approved.
"Do you often see things like that?" he asked.
The kid looked surprised only for a moment. Then he nodded and said, "Sometimes. I mean, sometimes people walk into this shop and for a second I see...."
The kid laughed again. It was a light, curious laugh. "I think I see their souls", he said. "I can't describe it."
"Is that good or bad?"
"Sometimes it's good", said the kid, shrugging. "Other times it's bad. Sometimes it's really bad."
"Have you seen...have you seen a guy with a skull for a face? I mean, a skull mask?"
The kid did look surprised now. "No", he said. "Why do you ask?"
"I'm looking for him, that's why", said Laurence. "But if you do see him....be careful. And don't do anything he suggests"
The kid nodded, looked troubled for a moment, then smiled again. Strange as the conversation was, he seemed to accept it entirely on its own terms. "Hey", he said. "This is for you." He picked up the poem and handed it to Laurence.
But Laurence made no move to take it. "Aren't you going to keep a copy for yourself?", he asked. "I mean, you were writing it all night..."
"No, man", said the kid. "I give all my poems away. Once I've written them, they're not mine any more."
Now Laurence reached out and delicately took it from the boy's fingers, but with unfeigned reluctance. "I don't know", he said. "Why give to me?"
"Because I like you" ,said the boy, matter-of-factly. "Because you're a good guy."
Laurence laughed, surprised at his own sudden embarrassment. He thought of the way his foot had crashed into the mugger's face-- and how much he enjoyed it. "You think so?", he asked. "I'm not so sure you're right."
"You're a good guy", the kid repeated. "I know you are."
Suddenly, Laurence found himself avoiding the kid's gentle blue eyes. There was a purity in them that made him feel self-conscious. Or maybe even guilty. "Thanks", he said, folding the page carefully. "I'll take care of this."
"I know", said the kid. "Take care of yourself, too."
"Yeah, you too", said Laurence, making for the door. "Take care of yourself."
Walking back to the hotel, he found himself thinking of the kid's blue eyes.
They reminded him of his college friend Debbie. She had been his confidant in his college years.
He remembered one particular night, sitting in Debbie's kitchen after one of the very few parties he had attended, pouring out all his frustrations and anxieties and resentments over cup after cup of milky coffee.
And he remembered his disdain and sense of betrayal when Debbie-- a church-goer-- had suggested he go to sacramental confession. "You're beating yourself up over all this stuff", she said. "You need to give it to God."
Laurence had smirked cynically. "I'm sorry," he'd said. "I respect your beliefs, but the idea that you just walk into a little box and a man in a collar says some magic words and suddenly everything is better....or that anything is different...that's just absurd to me. How can you actually believe it?"
"Because I've experienced it", said Debbie, softly. She reached out and took his arm. "Please, just go for me. Just to humour me. But keep an open mind."
Laurence shook his head, though his smirk had disappeared. "No", he said. "It would be a phony thing to do. I don't believe in any of it. I don't believe in the concept of sin."
"I think you do, though", said Debbie.
They had drifted apart after that. Laurence had experienced a deep sense of bitterness that he had been so badly misunderstood. Debbie had sat there listening to all his innermost thoughts, and all the time she had been filtering out everything that didn't fit in with her simplistic worldview. It was humiliating.
To distract himself from the memory-- which always made him angry-- he drew the poem from his pocket, unfolded it, and read it. The handwriting was small and neat, with not a single word crossed out.
Between Two Worlds
What is the figure who walks behind you
Closer than your shadow?
Who is the man in the mask?
Who is the hooded man?
It is not you.
It is not you.
It is not you.
You cannot flee from him.
You cannot hide.
He is waiting at the end of every street
And watching you from every window-pane.
He will follow you to the end of the world.
If you find another world, he will follow you there, as well.
There are no worlds where he cannot follow you.
You need to look into his face, his eyes--
They are your face, your eyes, and yet he is not you.
"Trippy", said Laurence, crumpling the piece of paper into a ball. Somehow he had expected better than such adolescent twaddle. He was genuinely disappointed.
But a moment later, he remembered his promise to treat the poem with care, and he was smoothing it out again as he walked into the hotel.