BY RUMPEL STILTSKIN

Prologue

“I hate when this happens”, I said, spitting dirt in the moonlight, wobbling on my feet, trying to wipe the mud off my naked body. “Fuck”, I swore, feeling tiny grains of dirt between my teeth. Staggering from grave to grave, I made my way toward the group of people with black hair and white makeup, tattoos and piercings. They wore unfashionable black, gothic-looking clothes, looking like a gaggle of geeks pretending to be vampires, laughing aloud, drinking and talking, leaning against old gravestones that surrounded a tall oak tree. My head spun, splitting headache blurred my vision. I could barely see their faces as I approached in the light rain.

“What the fuck happened to you, man?” A tall and muscular black guy asked, the girls giggling at the sight of a naked man covered with dirt. “I need a drink”, I said, still spitting out mud. I was a mess. “I think you’ve got one too many already, buddy”, another guy added with a chuckle. I wrestled away the big guy’s half-empty bottle of Jack and drank it in one gulp, falling on my back, dizzy, feeling the light rain prickle my face. “Woah, man, slow down. You’ll die from alcohol poisoning, and we'll have to bury you again”, the big guy joked, laughing.

Dark-haired girls with pale faces, wearing lots of silver jewellery shaped like skulls and crosses, studied me intently. “Why are you naked?” The blue-eyed one asked as she knelt, hovering above me, checking me out. Our eyes connected, and I saw a shy smile. “Let him go, Lucy. Can’t you see he’s drunk like a skunk?” the big guy said, loving his cliches and throwing an empty bottle at me, missing my head by mere inches. “Quit it, Mike”, Lucy shouted angrily “why do you have to be such an asshole?”.

She turned back to me, smiling. I squeezed her hand, looking right into her eyes, “thank you for your kindness”. Her eyes dropped “you’re welcome”, she responded shyly, almost in a whisper, never letting go of my hand. It didn’t surprise me. I often had that effect on women. Most men would find me likeable, friendly and trustworthy, apart from those that wanted to kill me. Still, the impact I had on women was extraordinary.

The women often felt mesmerised, enchanted, even aroused sometimes, telltale signs which Lucy here started to exhibit. Within minutes of interacting with me, the women would begin forming a sense of familiarity, like we had known each other for an eternity. Women felt they could trust me and tell me the secrets they wouldn't share even with their best friends. It took women just minutes sometimes to fall in love. It wasn’t something I actively did, but I knew that touching me only increased its potency like their personal brand of heroin. If they opened themselves up to it, they would experience bliss and those that didn’t would start to fear me for their own lack of control around me.

We stayed connected like this for what felt like forever. I inhaled the air, smelling like freshly cut grass, while light rain washed the dirt off my body. The rest of the group left us alone, laughing at something pointing fingers at me. I noticed their measuring glances, knowing they saw a tall, well built, good looking man in his mid-thirties, muscular with strong masculine features and a stern but kind face. My thick dark hair, now matted, only enhanced the impression my piercing green eyes made. People often commented that they look captivating, sometimes scary, and certainly intense. I didn’t look like your typical wino that one finds passed out on park benches at night.

The cawing of a jet-black raven landing on a nearby tombstone interrupted my trance. I tried to get up unsuccessfully a couple of times before giving up, settling back into the mud. It was too hard. “May I borrow your phone?” I asked Lucy. She pulled out an old smartphone with a smashed screen, unlocking it for me. “It’s me. I need a pick-up. I am in Tremont” it was one of the lower-income areas of New York, but it wasn’t always like that. The city continuously reinvents itself; some areas rise, others go down the drain.

Looking at the phone, I texted my location. “I’ll send someone to pick you up. They’ll be there within an hour”, came from the other side before hanging up. I noticed for the first time the ethnic diversity of Lucy’s group. Only she and another girl seemed to be caucasian. It was hard to tell with all the makeup, looking like vampires on a vegetarian diet.

With some effort and Lucy’s assistance, I managed to sit up and rest my back against a headstone. Her hand never left mine. “Tell me, Lucy, how did a white girl end up living in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighbourhood?” She dropped her gaze, mumbling, “I’m adopted”. Sensing there was more to the story, I waited. After a few minutes of silence, Lucy proceeded to tell me about her life with a faraway look in her eyes.

Her family was from Jackson, Mississippi. Her dad was a policeman, and so was Luther, her adoptive father. The two families lived next to each other since before she was born. Luther and Lucy’s dad used to be partners and best friends. They joined the police force together after being through thick and thin serving the army.

Lucy’s birth parents died in a car crash when she was four years old. The neighbours babysat her at their home when it happened, and that's why she was still alive. After all the legal procedures, she was finally adopted. The big guy, Mike, Luther’s son and Lucy grew up together as brother and sister.

They moved to New York after the city underwent budget rebalancing and staff cuts. There was nothing like reducing the police presence to combat violence. Luther moved his family to the Bronx, next to his brother, whose wife recently died of cancer, and he needed help with his two small children.

Lucy was only eight when they moved and have lived in Tremont ever since, with Mike becoming her relentless protector and best friend. It was a tough time for the young girl. She was one of the very few white people in the school, making her a target for bullying and constant unwanted attention. Wherever she went, she stuck out like a white crow. Mike played the part of her hero, ending up in all sorts of trouble, suspension and detention alike, not to mention numerous scrapes and bruises from defending the honour of his adoptive sister.

Trying to make herself invisible, Lucy gravitated to the fringe, the odd people, the outcasts. Painted, pierced and tattooed cared little about pedestrian stuff like wealth or race, and that’s how she made herself disappear. Lately, however, life got more complicated as the money dried out. Mike was twenty-one, working for a local warehouse. It was a minimum wage job, but every little helped. Lucy was unemployed, actively looking for work. This graveyard outing was the belated celebration of her eighteenth birthday with her former high-school friends.

Lucy and her stepbrother dreamt about going to university and learning, getting a good job and decent opportunities. Both were smart and hardworking but trapped in the working class, paycheck away from poverty life. Lucy tried finding a job for months, but doors would shut quickly, sometimes right in her face. She was either inexperienced, the wrong type of person or the wrong colour for the job. Being a sensitive type, she took it to heart, feeling useless, unwanted, and just dead weight for her family. She cried herself to sleep most nights. Being a shy goth with acute low self-esteem issues meant she didn’t make much headway in life. It was a trap, and she couldn’t get out.

Luther and his wife loved their children. They loved Lucy as if she was their own blood. Luther kept saying, “kids, do what you must. Run if you can; escape, and don’t look back. We love you to death, but nothing awaits you here; just more of the same till your time runs out. Take your chance, and gamble. The worst thing that can happen is to fail, and you end up where you are, right here with me, on the bottom of the ladder”.

That was some heavy stuff to unload on a perfect stranger, especially the one covered in mud naked after downing half a bottle of cheap spirit in a graveyard. I felt like Lucy really needed to tell this to someone and release her emotional baggage. Not knowing what to say, I squeezed her hand, watching her big blue eyes tear. “I’m sorry for that”, she said as she came out of her melancholic trance, realising that she had overshared. “It’s fine”, I said smiling, “I’ve heard worse”, brushing the hair off her cheek in sympathy, feeling the warmth of her skin. The whole situation was a little surreal, even for me, despite this not being my first graveyard party. I observed Lucy’s friends giving us some space, perhaps embarrassed at my state of undress or because they were used to her pathological empathy for those less fortunate. Maybe they noticed the intense way she looked at me. Whatever the reason, they kept out of it.

A deep low rumble of a powerful engine came down the road in the middle of the night. A black sports SUV with unique, exquisitely sharp, angular lines unlike any seen on Tremont streets before stopped by the curb opposite the cemetery. A few seconds later, a man looking like a bouncer wearing an expensive black suit made his way toward me. “I’m afraid I’ll have to go now, Lucy. This is my ride” She stood up, pulling my arm, helping me stand. Still feeling unsteady on my feet, I leaned heavily on Lucy. She helped me walk towards the car. The man came up to us and partially covered my nakedness with his jacket before approaching the group watching us from under the tree. He handed them a hundred bucks saying, “this is for your drink”. Mike stared at the cash, then approached me and said, “thanks, man, it’s very much appreciated. Sorry for being a dick”, following his sister and me to the street.

Seeing the car, he slobbered all over it with dropped jaw and saucer eyes. “Seriously? This car is a Karlman King. I only saw it in pictures. I didn’t even know they were making those for sale yet. Holy fuck, man”. Unlike Lucy, he was clearly a petrolhead. She just said, “it looks nice, but I prefer sports cars”. Mike almost fell to the floor laughing, “this is a sports car, silly. This costs over a million dollars. Hey man, how much did you pay?” I shrugged and said, “about one-five”. Mike whistled. Siblings stared at each other in disbelief. Spending so much money on just a car was unthinkable. It was undeniable that I was entirely out of place, lost in the Bronx.

Mike felt that we bonded over our love of cars. I saw Lucy was about to say something along the lines of how it was a waste of cash as it was just a car when I opened the back door. “Oh, wow, Omg”, she said in surprise. I let the brother and sister examine the interior. The exquisite upholstery, gold plated trim, modern lines, gold-tinted windows and carefully placed lights illuminated the inside in a subtle play of colour. The opulent design looked like some sort of a spaceship fitted for the emperor of a distant planet.

The siblings stared at the interior, drinking in every little detail, knowing they would never see a car like that again. Lucy looked at me with those big blue eyes expectantly, trying to say something, but she couldn’t get the words out. I stared straight back at her with a smile, extending my hand, asking, “are you coming?” I saw the confusion on her face. She looked at her brother, nodding, urging her to risk and take the gamble.

What better chance was there for Lucy? Jobless and desperate, stuck in a cul-de-sac of misery. On the other side of the door awaited a man, offering her a hand to at least an adventure. When you are on the bottom, the only way is up, and Lucy lived on the bottom for a very long time. Mike gently nudged Lucy forward. She was eighteen now, an adult, being offered a hand. Thousands of thoughts flooded in at the same time. The old hopes and dreams she used to note down in her diary were tempered by terrible stories of what could happen to young women with strange men.

Lucy knew nothing about the stranger, yet if she refused, she would just be going back to her everyday life, and this moment becomes Sunday at the stroke of midnight, turning the car into a pumpkin and the prince into a shattered glass slipper. Lucy was absolutely sure that she didn't want that. Like in a dream, she moved, sitting inside, taking my hand, squeezing it tight with hers, damp from nervousness.

Mike gave me a dead-serious look, saying matter-of-factly, “I'll kill you if something happens to her”. I shook his hand, acknowledging his words with the gravity they deserved. “Be good to her”, Mike said before shutting the door. Then, as if forgetting something important, he signalled me to lower the window. I heard him ask, “what is your name, man?”.

As the car pulled away, Mike was left standing on the road with just one word echoing in his head.

It was “Greg”.