Avery Rhodes’s first impression upon entering the house was that it smelled like shit. Fortunately, he was so accustomed to the vast array of noxious smells released by the human body, that he was able to note it without it turning his stomach. He had known when he found the house that there was a risk of squatters and vandals. He was not concerned; They would be easy to deal with.
The front door was heavy. He left it open, just in case any other intruders made the wise decision to run before a confrontation. Dropping his backpack from his shoulder, he knelt down and pulled the Atlanta Braves cap from his head. The brisk March air gusted in behind him, chilling his now-uncovered head, and strewing trash, leaves, and dust bunnies across the floor of the great room in front of him. Before he risked unzipping the backpack, he listened carefully and glanced around.
Light filtered in through the windows the lined the ceiling, illuminating the room. The house was not only unkept, but completely trashed, as Rhodes suspected it would be. There were gang signs and other gibberish spray painted across walls and doors, the floor was littered with food wrappers, old newspapers, and discarded rags of clothing. Despite this wasted patina, Rhodes could see the house for what it really was: the doors were contemporary to the house, the woodwork was fine and in-tact, and – although the floor plan was unusual – there was more than enough space for his intentions.
Rhodes opened his backpack and gratefully shoved the ball cap inside. He had bought it at Hartsfield-Jackson on his first pass through. Although he wore it on his way back through El Prat, and the entire flight back, it was still irritatingly stiff, and he still hated baseball. He hoped that he would not have occasion, for the three months he planned to be in Georgia, to pull it back out until it was time to fly back to Spain. Sliding his hand deeper into the bag, he pulled a large hunting knife from the bottom, and clipped the sheath to the back of his jeans. Reaching into a side pocket, he fished out a pair of nitrile gloves, and pulled them onto his hands. He zipped the backpack closed, and concealed it behind the open door.
A muffled cough echoed through the house. Rhodes froze, listening again. He didn’t hear any movement; It was unlikely the cougher was aware that anyone else had entered the house. Another cough, followed by a fit of hacking, led Rhodes to a pair of French doors on the opposite side of the great room. Whoever it was, he was making no attempt at keeping quiet. He was also extremely ill. Standing to one side, he peered through the glass panes.
The French doors led into a large study. It was richly furnished, but just as trashed as the great room. There was only one window on each side of the room, but Rhodes could make out stacks of books on the floor, and a spiral staircase leading to a second-floor landing. He could barely see the tops of several doors. His heart began to beat a bit faster; Those must be the bedrooms. He could not wait to explore them, imagine their potential, and bring his plans to life.
Rhodes waited a moment after the coughing died down. Gripping the knife’s handle behind his back, he slowly opened the doors. He moved slowly into the study, so that his eyes could adjust to the changing light. Scanning the depths of the study, he found the outline of a man lying across a chaise-lounge, with a ratty woolen blanket clutched around him. His breathing was loud and wet, his brown hair wild and wiry.
Standing over the man, Rhodes watched him sleep for a moment before kicking the leg of the chaise-lounge. The man jumped up with a cry, and cowered as best he could against the back of the chair.
“Who is it?” he cried, looking around blindly in the dark. “Who are you?” His words broke into a violent hacking. Rhodes let go of the knife, and covered his nose and mouth with a gloved hand until it passed.
“Who am I?” Rhodes replied. “Who the fuck are you? I own this house!”
The man hacked again. It took Rhodes a moment to realize that he was not coughing this time, but laughing.
“What?” Rhodes demanded. Somehow this vagrant had seen straight through his lie. He would have to do something about that.
“You don’t own this house, dude,” the man chuckled wetly. “No one owns this house – the state owns this house!”
Becoming irritated, Rhodes leaned down to get a better look at this tramp. He was filthy; He smelled sick. The whites of his eyes were yellow, streaked with brown from sepsis. Gobs of mucus ran from them, down either side of his nose. He was not long for this world.
“You’ve very sick,” Rhodes observed.
The man shook his head with a wry chuckle. “Not as sick as you are.”
Rhodes tilted his head (How could he know?), his hand drifting back to the handle of the knife. The man continued:
“Not as sick as you are, if you bought this house. Who in their right mind would want to live here?” he asked. “It ain’t right. Being here ain’t right, but I don’t have any choice. Like you said, I’m sick.”
Rhodes was nowhere near as curious as he should have been; He was too distracted by coming up with ways that he might be able to make his story more solid. He would need to create a paper trail, which could take a significant amount of time. Cleaning and repairing the house would take a significant amount of time. He needed to stop wasting it.
Reaching out, Rhodes took the man’s bearded chin into his hand, and turned his face from side-to-side. He had been shaking with fear and fever, but seemed to relax when he saw that Rhodes was wearing gloves.
“You a doctor?” he asked, looking up at him with hope.
“Not at the moment,” Rhodes replied.
Throwing his weight forward, Rhodes covered the man’s nose and mouth with a gloved hand, and pressed his knee into the man’s chest. The vagrant flailed helplessly, clutching at Rhodes’s jeans and jacket. Even after his grip failed and his hands dropped, Rhodes continued to smother him – knowing all-too-well that stillness was not an indicator of death.
After a few minutes, Rhodes slid his other hand around the man’s neck. Only when he failed to find a pulse did he release the body. It slid lifelessly onto the floor, knocking over a pile of books and a ratty knapsack.
Rhodes picked up the knapsack and flipped it open. It contained stinking, ragged clothes, a small, telescoping umbrella, and a large, hardcover book. The book and umbrella appeared to be the only things this man possessed that were in good condition. Glancing at the cover, Rhodes was surprised to find a 2014 high school year book.
Shoving the book back into the bag, Rhodes glanced down at the body. He needed light. Bag in one hand, he grabbed a corner of the woolen blanket in the other, and used it to drag the body into the great room, then out the front door.
Brought into the light, Rhodes could now see that the vagrant had been far younger than he had guessed, perhaps in his early twenties. Cleaned up, he could even have been attractive. Nevertheless, he had been far too sick to survive much longer. His skin has a yellow, jaundiced tint.
Flipping the knapsack over, Rhodes dumped the contents onto the porch. He picked up the yearbook. Underneath Cheatham Hills High School 2014, it had been inscribed with a name, but it had been scratched out. It appeared, in fact, that it had been scratched out with multiple implements on several different occasions. Opening the book, Rhodes perused the heart-felt notes written on the inside cover. It appeared that the man had crossed out his name whenever it occurred. This level of self-loathing curiously contrasted the warm things everyone seemed to have to say about him.
Eyeing the body, Rhodes snapped the yearbook shut, and pushed aside his growing curiosity. This boy did not matter to him. Using his foot, Rhodes pushed around the dirty clothes in search of anything he may have missed. A shock of color drew his attention toward the umbrella. It appeared to have something wrapped inside it.
Opening the umbrella, Rhodes was unexpectedly delighted to find that the inside was painted with brightly-colored rainbow patterns. The inside and the edges lined with lavender, white, and dark green. The self-loathing began to make a bit more sense. Over the pattern, a message was painted in streaky white letters:
NEVER STOP RUNNING…
It was followed by a broad, hypnotic swirl, which ended in CHHS ’13. Rhodes lifted the umbrella over his head and spun it for a moment.
“You should have listened,” Rhodes said aloud to the body at his feet.