One Small Sacrifice (Shadows of New York)
When he heard the gunshot, Alex Traynor threw himself face-first onto the pavement. He lay as flat as he could, his right leg throbbing from an old bullet wound. Play dead, he warned himself, even as his leg twisted from side to side, never quite obeying. Blood pounded in his ears. He couldn’t get enough air into his lungs. While he struggled for breath, he strained to hear any noise around him: footsteps, voices, another shot. There was a black car parked by the curb next to him; it shielded his body, but it also made it impossible to see what the hell was going on.
Sixteen years of photographing war zones had left him with a fear of snipers. He’d witnessed a twelve-year-old boy murdered not twenty feet in front of him, the top of his head flying into the air from the force of the blast. That wasn’t even the worst he’d seen; at least the boy had died instantly. There were others who’d screamed in agony as they bled out in the street; Alex had heard them as he crouched in the shadows, under an awning or inside a doorway, waiting out the shooter. He remembered every single one of the dead because he’d memorialized them in photographs. That work had brought him, several times, inches from his own death. Not your turn today, his best friend, Maclean, used to tell him. Not your turn today, until one day it was.
There was another shot. Then a third. Alex’s arm felt like it was on fire. He lifted it slightly and saw blood. His first thought was that a bullet must’ve grazed him, and he turned his head to look for the shooter. He stared at the buildings on either side of the street, confused for a brief moment about why none of them had broken windows.
You’re not in Aleppo anymore, he remembered. The realization should have been a relief to him, but instead it was a torment. He’d been betrayed by his own brain. Again.
He swallowed hard as shame coursed through him. He was home. New York. Eleventh Avenue. He could hear the traffic on the West Side Highway. He forced himself to sit up. There was dark-green glass sticking out of his arm. He’d hit the sidewalk where someone had broken a beer bottle. Some drunk’s way of celebrating a warm October weekend in the city.
There was another shot. Alex flinched, but he turned around to look. That was when he saw them, the only other people on the block. Two middle-aged women and a boy who might’ve been ten. The kid tossed a little white sphere on the sidewalk, and there was the sound of a shot. It made Alex’s stomach clench. He wasn’t afraid anymore, just angry.
“You can’t do that here,” Alex called out. His voice was hoarse, as if it hadn’t been used in days.
Three pairs of eyes zeroed in on him. “It’s just a snap’n pop,” the boy answered coolly.
One woman put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Don’t talk to the homeless man, Mason. Those people are crazy.”
Homeless man? Alex thought as they walked past him, the adults averting their eyes. The boy stared, fascinated by him. When they were ten feet down the block, the boy threw another little white sphere. He laughed when Alex flinched.
“Just a snap’n pop,” Alex muttered. That didn’t make him feel any better. It had been months since he’d had a full-blown PTSD episode. Life had been good, and he’d believed his brain had settled down, quieted by steady routine, exercises in mindfulness, and a domestic bliss he’d never expected to find. But the bottom had suddenly dropped out of his world, and he knew he was in free fall. Where he’d land was anyone’s guess.
He got to his feet, dusting shards of glass off his jeans. He was almost at Hudson Yards. He’d been bound for the martial arts studio where he trained, but red stripes of blood were running out of three gashes in his left arm. Two still had glass poking out. The smart thing to do, Alex knew, would be to duck into a walk-in clinic for a doctor to clean up the cuts and put in a stitch or two. But when did he ever claim to be smart? It was late afternoon on a Sunday. He could take care of it himself.
On the walk home, he found himself edging along the sides of buildings. It was second nature in a war zone, a strategy for making yourself less of a ready target. Only he wasn’t in a war zone anymore. The fact he had to keep reminding himself of that made Alex uneasy. If his brain could so easily slip back into that familiar groove, how else might it betray him?
As he got near his building, his imagination was still in overdrive. He spotted a broad-shouldered man with a tattoo of a spiky black dragon slithering up his left calf, and that brought Maclean to mind again. Alex reached into his pocket for his dead friend’s silver lighter before remembering it had gone missing over the weekend. That was yet another way his brain let him down: his memory was flawed, and he had no one to blame for it but himself. No more booze, no more weed, no more pills, Alex reminded himself. He’d had a relapse on Friday night, and even though he hadn’t dug himself into an opiate-filled hole, the pit he’d found himself in had been bad enough. He’d woken up on the platform of an abandoned subway station in the small hours of Saturday morning, unsure of how he’d gotten there. On his way home, he’d come close to being mugged at Times Square. How am I going to help Emily if I can’t keep it together? he thought. The last thing he needed was for the blackouts to start up again. How many hours—how many days—had he lost to them when he’d come back from Syria after that last trip?
Thinking about his fiancée made it easier for Alex to focus. As he turned onto his street, he caught sight of a man who reminded him of another friend, Will Sipher. That apparition seemed to be watching Alex’s building from across the street, eyes disguised behind a pair of shades and his head tucked into a hoodie. Get a grip. No one is spying on you. Alex shook his head, determined to rein in his chaotic thoughts. The man’s phone buzzed, and he turned away. Alex crossed the street without another glance at him.
His apartment was a fifth-floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, inside a redbrick building that used to be a warehouse. The super was loitering in the lobby, shining up the rusty metal of the mailboxes. Bobby was built like an old-fashioned icebox, low to the ground but bearing serious weight. He had dark curly hair and a sloping brow, which was usually beaded with sweat. His eyes were small in his round ball of a head, like raisins set on a snowman’s face. They popped as he took in Alex’s disheveled appearance, and he whistled. “You get into a bar fight or something?”
“Too early for that,” Alex said.
“You got blood all over you, you know.”
“Do I?” Alex didn’t have much use for the super, even though he’d known him for the better part of a decade. The man had taken up the habit of hanging around his apartment since Emily had moved in. It took a lot to motivate Bobby to make his way up to the fifth floor, and the panting sounds announcing his arrival could be heard down the hallway.
“Blood’s a bitch to clean up, man.”
“I’ll try not to get any on the floor, Bobby.”
“What’s Emily gonna say about this?” the super called after him.
Alex hiked up the stairs as fast as he could. As he unlocked the door to his apartment, he started to breathe easier. He dropped his keys into a ceramic bowl on the small wooden table next to the door. The light was fading toward sunset, but it streamed in through the south-facing window overlooking West Forty-Eighth Street. He expected to find his dog lying on the large wooden table in front of the window, lapping up the last of the rays, but Sid wasn’t there. He wasn’t on the plush red sofa in the center of the room, either, or on any of the chairs. The galley kitchen was to the left of the front door, but it was empty.
It took Alex a moment to realize what was wrong: the bedroom door was open. It was a hot day, and he’d left the air-conditioning on in the living room for Sid. He knew he’d shut the bedroom and bathroom doors to keep the place cool. He set his gym bag on the sofa and stood still, listening. Someone was moving around in the bedroom. He felt a sudden glimmer of hope. Emily had come back.
“I was getting worried,” Alex called out. “I thought I had . . .”
There were only the sounds of a drawer slamming shut and then the window screeching in protest against being opened.
Alex rushed to the doorway. There was a woman he’d never seen before in his bedroom. Her platinum-blonde head was already halfway out the window to the fire escape.