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From Out in the Cold

By:L. A. Witt

From Out in the Cold
Author: L. A. Witt





Chapter One

Neil

I hated the walk home from my grief counselor's office, especially this time of year. It was the second week of December, and the evening was cold the way only a winter evening in Chicago knew how to be. That windy, dirty chill that threw grit in your eyes just before it climbed under your skin and into your lungs. Nights like this, only an idiot would walk anywhere he didn't have to.

Especially when that idiot didn't have to walk the fifteen blocks from his counselor's office to his apartment with the "L" rumbling down its tracks below his feet and sometimes above his head.

I walked, though, because I still couldn't get on the train. I hadn't been on it in just over a year-God, has it really been that long already?-and didn't see that changing anytime soon. My counselor told me again tonight not to push myself. That I would get there in time. How much time was anyone's guess.

And I couldn't smoke on the bus, so I walked. I made it about two thirds of a block before, wind be damned, I took the wrinkled pack of Marlboros out of my jacket. I pulled off my glove and freed a cigarette from the pack, then fished my lighter out of another pocket.

As soon as the smoke was lit, I shoved the lighter back into my jacket and my hand back into my glove. It was a pain in the ass, maneuvering a cigarette to and from my mouth with my fingers tucked into thick ski gloves, but the night was too damned cold for bare hands. Bring on some emphysema with a side of lung cancer, but fuck frostbite.

In between inhaling and exhaling smoke, I paused to cough a couple of times, wincing at the ashy bitterness on my tongue. I was slowly getting used to the taste, faster now than I had the last few times I'd taken up smoking. Usually I quit before I got used to it. This year I'd started early, and though it still wasn't my favorite flavor in the world, it wasn't so bad now. At least it tasted better than cold car exhaust.

As I walked and smoked and tried not to freeze my ass off, I let my gaze slide up the tall buildings towering above me, because looking at long-memorized buildings was easier than thinking about my conversation with my grief counselor. I'd been here almost a decade and wondered if I'd ever feel at home in this place. Chicago wasn't like cigarette smoke, something that would choke me at first but eventually went in and out of my lungs with ease. This city was crazy. Buildings so tall they could step on you. Streets so long they could strangle you. The whole damned thing spread out so far in so many directions I sometimes wondered if it would fold in on itself and swallow me whole. Days like this, I wondered if it already had.

So leave already, Neil.

Right.

Leave.

And go where, exactly?

I flicked the spent cigarette into a pile of dirty snow and stuffed my gloved hands into my coat pockets. I buried my face in my parka's high collar and walked a little faster.

The nicotine hadn't helped. I was still as tightly wound as I'd been when I left Jody's office. My mind was still scattered, my concentration all over the fucking place. I always felt so goddamned lost after an appointment with her. Sometimes I wondered why I kept going back, but being lost was better than … than whatever it was I'd felt before a coworker finally convinced me to make an appointment six months ago.

"It'll take time, Neil," Jody had assured me today and every week since June. "No one's expecting you to have a handle on all of this overnight. Be patient."

Said the woman who got to close her file folder at the end of our hour and be done with it while I went home and tried not to sleep so I wouldn't dream.

I almost took out my cigarettes again, but I was only half a block away from home. If I started smoking now, I'd have to stand outside at the base of my apartment stairs while I finished it, and it was too cold for that shit. Maybe it was just as well I only smoked in the wintertime. Nothing kept me from staying out on my balcony and chain-smoking like a relentless, fume-flavored Chicago wind trying to freeze my balls off.

I crossed the last street and walked a little faster toward the stairs leading up to my apartment. A homeless guy shivered at the base of the stairs, huddled beside what looked like one of those green bags they issue in the military. Probably another vet who'd come back from a war-maybe Vietnam, maybe the Middle East; one seemed as likely as the other these days-and wound up on the streets.

I felt for him. I really did. I felt for all the people living on the streets, especially in this kind of weather.

These days I was also scared to death to engage anyone with whom I wasn't already well acquainted, so I tucked my face a little deeper into my collar and started up the steps.

"Neil?"

I stopped with one foot hovering over the next step. Habitual fear made me want to run like hell into the building, but curiosity slowly turned me around.

The homeless guy craned his neck, looking up at me from under the bill of a Dodgers baseball cap. He had a good two or three days' worth of stubble on his face, and he was gaunt, pale, and exhausted, but as soon as the streetlights illuminated his eyes, my heart stopped.

"Jeremy?" I hurried down the stairs, completely forgetting about the ice and nearly winding up on my ass for my trouble. I regained my footing, and when I had my feet beneath me, found myself eye to eye with Jeremy Kelley, my childhood best friend.

"Thank God," he said through badly chattering teeth. "I was hoping you still lived here."

"Yeah, I do. And-"

"Look, I know this is out of the blue," he said quickly. "I can explain, but please, don't-"

"Jeremy."

He stopped, and his eyes were terrified as they locked on mine. I didn't have to ask why. The last time we saw each other hadn't ended all that well, and he probably wondered if I was going to leave him out here, though I hoped to God he knew me better than that.

I looked him up and down, wondering how the fuck he hadn't died of hypothermia in military-issue boots, a pair of jeans, and a parka that wasn't made for any winter north of the Mason-Dixon line. Whatever had sent him to my doorstep, he was desperate and in no shape to be out here another minute.

I gestured up the stairs. "Let's get you inside before you freeze. Come on."

He released a cloud of breath. "Thanks. I really appreciate it."

"Don't mention it."

///



Jeremy reached for his bag. His hand was bare and bright red, and his fingers couldn't quite grasp the frayed green straps.

"I'll get it." I pulled off my gloves and handed them to him. "Here, put these on."

"Thanks." He took the gloves and, with some effort and swearing, managed to get them on his hands.

I hoisted the heavy bag onto my shoulder. "Jesus, man, what do you have in here?"

The Jeremy I'd known most of my life would have had some sort of snarky retort or called me a pussy for groaning under the bag's weight. This Jeremy just lowered his gaze and murmured, "Pretty much everything I have."

I didn't say anything. I gestured up the stairs, and we went inside. His gait was stiff and slow, probably from being so cold, but he didn't seem hurt or sick. Still, I worried about him more and more with every floor the elevator creaked and groaned past on its way up to the fifth, and every step we took to my apartment door.

The bag's strap bit into my shoulder through my parka, and I shifted my weight to balance it while I dug my house key out of my pocket. I found the key, put it in the door, mused silently to myself that this was what I got for not telling the landlord months ago that my deadbolt was sticking, and finally got the fucking thing to turn.

Inside I eased Jeremy's bag onto my couch and turned to him as I unz

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