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Sebastian Matthews

"King! Please! Don't!"

He sat up, leaned into the noisy silence of the canyon, and listened hard. The only sounds: the solitary whine of a sports car working its way through the gears, the thrum of the refrigerator. He must have been dreaming.

But then out of darkness came a fast succession of echoing footsteps, heavy slaps on wet pavement slipping a little at each step--steps strangely amplified, sharp and hollow. Then the voice again, its urgency entering into his body like a jolt of electricity.

"King! Don't!"

No dreaming this. Two sets of footsteps now: what had to be dress shoes slapping and slipping, but also sneakers, sure-footed, even. And then she was awake, jerked from her sleep by his cry.

Calling out, "Who's there?"

He reached back for her extended hand. "I don't know," he said. Then came the distinct, horrifying sound of a fist making contact with a body, a deadened whoomp.

He watched a current of fear flow through her; sweat broke out on the back of his neck.

The man fell down; he could hear what must have been his head knocking back onto the pavement. The man began to wail.

"Please! No! Please! Please! No!"

Like a sleepwalker, he moved up to the window, shivering in the sick excitement of the moment. Fog was pulled like a white curtain across the open windows, wisps of it drifting into the room.

Another punch. Then another. Then a louder, creepier whoomp that had to be a kick, and then the air let out of the man, breath rattling out of battered ribs.

He couldn't stand it anymore. "Stop it! Just stop it! Enough!"

For a moment there was silence. Then out of the fog came the electric smack of a face slap, followed by an animal yowl of pain.

"I didn't do it, King, I swear it!"

Another kick.

He turned to her and said, as if reciting his lines, "Call the police."

She was already crouched over the phone, dialing. In that instant she looked like the famous photograph of a nude curled in on her self, transformed into a shell. She was crying.

"You mother-fucking asshole! Don't you lie to me!"

He turned back to the slap of King's voice. Deep, flat and rage-bloated, it rose up through the night in a stench. He realized he'd been holding his breath against its force.

She got the police on the phone, but what could she say? There was no telling what street King stood spraddle-legged on, in what alley the man lay cringing

beneath him. The canyon was a maze of labyrinthine streets, stilted mansions looming up on either side.

"They're on their way," she said, joining him at the window, but they both knew no help would come.

And so, in this way, standing beside each other in the warm breeze, they listened to the brutal intimacy of one man methodically beating another. He felt like a child again, eavesdropping on his parents' fighting. At one point, she went outside onto the porch and yelled, "We called the cops!" She returned to bed and curled up into a tight ball.

"Why don't you do something," she said, her face buried in the pillow.

He didn't have an answer, nor did he have the energy to console her; he just stood there wondering what the man in the dress shoes had done, how badly he had crossed King. It seemed crazy to cross anyone named King. Maybe he didn't do anything, and King had gotten his signals crossed.

Finally, the man in the dress shoes got on his feet and started stumbling down the hill. King came after him, a new wave of rage rising up in his voice.

"Come back here, you little fuck!"

He thought for sure if King caught him he'd kill him, and they'd have to stand up in their cloud perch and hear it all, guilty by association. But the man kept running and King's steps slowed. Eventually he heard him curse and turn back, the soles of his sneakers making muffled drumbeats fading out like a song.

He stayed up for a long time, his body thrumming with adrenaline. Eventually a cop came to the door. It was her place, so he woke her up and she went out on the deck to answer the cop's questions. I'm just the boyfriend, he told himself. It's not my neighborhood. But this did little to console him.

After it was all over, he went back outside and looked out over the canyon, watching as the house lights slowly blinked on and listening to the first morning sounds as they wafted up through the thinning fog. He thought about King: of crossing him, of going down under a rain of punches. He thought of getting out of town.


Sebastian Matthews lives with his wife in Asheville, North Carolina, where he teaches at Warren Wilson College and edits RIVENDELL, a literary arts journal. Both a collection of poems (Out Walking, Salmon Press) and a memoir (Like Father, Like Son, Norton) will come out in 2004.

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