The last vapors of anxiety disappeared in the fresh air. Breathing deeply of the crisp autumn scents, I headed to my favorite place in the city — the waterfront. The river that ran through the heart of Portland was a little under two miles from my apartment, but I didn’t care. The exercise would be a welcome diversion and the streets would offer ample eclectic personalities to mock.
Portland was nothing like the suburbanized town in Virginia where my family had made their fortune developing subdivisions. And that was exactly why I’d chosen it. I’d already disappointed my father by selecting a career he swore would never go anywhere, so I spitefully moved to the other side of the country, effectively quelling any last hopes he’d had of my inheriting the family business. Even then, he hadn’t disowned me and instead continued to fund my so-called “extravagant lifestyle” with the trust fund I’d had since birth.
But the art community here wasn’t exactly welcoming to someone living off a silver spoon, and to hide that fact, I tried to keep up the stereotypical image expected of a “starving” artist — battered clothing, disheveled appearance, funky living arrangements, and a pantry stocked with ramen. If anyone bothered to look closely, they’d see the designer labels etched into my deliberately torn and stained clothes, the professionally-stylized messy hair and the art degree from an elitist university most artists sneered at simply because they could never afford it. My carefully maintained attitude of superiority tended to prevent that kind of detailed inspection though, and I blended easily with the snobby artists despite my privileged background. I’d even started to earn a modicum of notoriety on the gallery circuit.
But that was before.
I made my way leisurely down the city blocks, hands in my jacket pockets, the sketchbook tucked securely under my arm. Smiling like a content cat, I basked in the precious rays of warmth that glistened off the still-wet pavement and dripped from the soggy trees and awnings. I marveled at how many fellow Portlandites were doing the exact same thing. Like lizards, everyone flocked to the outdoors at the first speckle of sunshine, soaking in every last drop before the gloomy downpours returned.
I strolled past the overpriced, trendy health-food store, people clogging the sidewalk by its entrance like platelets clotting an artery; past the tiny hole-in-the-wall bars too pretentious for their own good, and stubbornly closed until at least 4 p.m.; past the strip of boutiques trying so hard for unique, world-cultured personality that they all ended up the same; and past several more apartment buildings not unlike my own — charmingly historic on the outside, but probably equally as neglected inside.
Finally, the city fell away as my path collided with the wide expanse of green that paralleled the Willamette River. It was like the edge of civilization — all streets running perpendicular to the water ended against this untouchable homage to nature.
I dodged my way through joggers, bicyclists, and dog-walkers until I came to my favorite spot in the park — a bench toward the north end, out of the main flow of traffic. I was awarded a sweeping view of the industrial buildings across the river, backed by the snow-capped majesty of Mount Hood in the distance. It was the perfect sanctuary to get lost in; enough solitude to appease my broodiness, but not so isolated as to be lonely.
Settling onto the surprisingly dry bench, I opened the sketchbook and idly began to draw. The spidery lines formed almost on their own, etching a face I knew all too well into the blank page. She was a constant muse for me, and the sketchbook was filled with various images just like this. As if, by immortalizing her beauty, I could erase what I’d done.
“You’re sitting on my bed.” The voice rasped over me like wind through dry leaves. I looked up sharply, annoyed at the interruption. Standing next to the nearest garbage can and half hidden in the shadow of its tree stood a homeless woman. Her arms were crossed and she glared at me from crisp, green eyes at odds with her dirty, wrinkled face; like someone had taken brilliant emeralds and stuck them into a sunken, half-rotten apple. Her three white hairs wisped out from a dirty, misshapen hat; her small, emaciated frame drowned beneath the saggy, torn uniform of the worthless, and her mouth pursed into a thin line that curled against her gums the way a moldy jack-o-lantern’s does. I could almost see the stench wafting off her and felt my lip twist with disgust.
Pointedly, I ignored her, returning to my sketch.
“The least you could do is offer some spare change.”
I felt the hair on the back of my neck bristle. Was my lack of response not clear enough? Maybe she was slow as well as disgusting.
“The least you could do is get a real job like everyone else,” I snarled, meeting her nondescript gaze with a glare, “There are plenty of other benches in the park. Go find one of them.” I returned to my sketch, certain she’d take the hint this time and leave. But the sudden assault on my nostrils told me she’d moved closer instead. It was a sickening combination of unwashed human flesh, the filth that coated her clothes, and age.
“What?” I demanded, “I already told you. I’m not giving you a cent!”
“She’s pretty,” she said, looking over my shoulder at the half-finished drawing.
“Not anymore,” I mumbled, slamming the sketchbook closed. “Do you mind?” I dismissed her with a wave of my hand, “Your stench is making me ill.”
“Well, aren’t you a charmer?” she answered. Her eyes nearly disappeared into the wrinkles of her scowl and I was struck by her sudden uncanny resemblance to the shrunken heads you’d find in a shaman’s hut.
“You know what? Fine. If you can’t take a hint, then I’ll leave. Does that make it clear enough for you?” Frustrated, I angrily shoved the sketchbook inside my half-zipped jacket, safely hidden away from prying eyes, and stood. Out of the corner of my eye, something flashed, a metallic starburst reflecting the sun. The homeless woman held up her hands, halting me.
“Why don’t you stay awhile? You only lose yourself more by refusing to face your demons.” A malicious smirk contorted her features. She fished a funky pendant that looked like an empty vial twisted in tarnished wire from within the folds of brown clothing, clutching it tightly against her chest. She started chanting something under her breath. It was unintelligible, but the glint in her eyes was that of a hunter about to kill its prey.
She had officially crossed the border into lunatic-ville and I knew my cue to leave when I saw it. But I couldn’t move. My feet were frozen to the spot as if lodged in cement.
“What the hell?” I struggled, twisting and pulling at my legs.
She finished chanting and grinned at me, dropping the pendant back into its nest of dirty rags, baring her few jagged teeth in a chilling expression that further undermined any glimmer of sanity. For the first time since that night three years ago, I felt afraid. Not the false adrenaline rush of a panic attack, but the genuine whispers of fear.
“Look, lady, I’m sorry, ‘k?” I tried again to move, flailing like a worm on wet pavement while the homeless woman watched. “This isn’t funny! Let me go, you psycho!”
“Close, but not quite,” she answered, giving me a nod and a creepy, genuine smile.
“What? Who the hell are you?”
“Let’s just say, I’m a remnant from another time.”
I stared at her, incredulous. She really was insane. And now she was standing there, spouting cryptic nothings, eying me like a spider would a captured fly. I was going to die here. At the hands of this lunatic, in the middle of a public park and broad daylight. Could I really have earned a death that ironic?
I felt the dormant panic latch onto the fear inside me like a starving orphan, and fought hard to keep my thoughts from spiraling out of control. I took a few deep breaths and stopped trying to wrench myself free. I met her gaze as calmly as I could, and decided to try a different approach.
“What do you want? Money? I’ll give you money; however much you ask for. You want an apology? I’m sorry. I’ll never take your bench again. Just tell me what I have to do to get out of here,” I implored, projecting false remorse in hopes of bolstering my chances. But she just stared at me, a touch of sadness leaking across her wrinkled face.
“Ah, Derek, you still don’t get it,” she sighed.
“How do you know . . .”
“What I know isn’t important,” she interrupted, waving her hand dismissively at me. I hadn’t realized how obnoxious that really was. Seething, I shut my mouth and just let her speak.
“You, Derek, are long overdue for a reality check. You’ve been running from yourself for so long, you’ve nearly forgotten how to be human. Compassion. Empathy. These are things you think you can live without. But without them, you’re cold, heartless.”
“Life advice from a homeless woman. Just what I always wanted. Are you done?” I growled. How dare she lecture me about my life when clearly she’d been so successful in her own.
“Almost.” Her voice took on a sudden clarity, a hard edge that hadn’t been there before. “Until you reclaim what you lost, face that which haunts you, you will remain a statue, unmoving for eternity.” She laughed and turned to leave. “Enjoy your fate. Or should I say, your curse?”
I snarled at her retreating back. A sudden burst of wind funneled the fallen leaves around me and I quickly covered my face with my arms. When I lowered them, the homeless woman was nowhere to be seen.