Molech was a dry man. His lips were cracked and bleeding. His tongue grated the roof of his mouth like sandpaper. His face was sunken, with cavernous eye sockets, a pinched, sharp nose, and hollow cheeks beneath jutting cheekbones. Fine lines etched his red-brown skin like cracks in the parched basin of a desert streambed, and his shock of straw-like hair, swept by the wind, flew back in brittle patches. Molech’s collarbone protruded sternly beneath his flapping shirt collar, and his hands, swinging by his sides as he walked, were skeleton hands, knuckles rattling against each other like giant, geometric beads on string. Molech’s narrow thighs jerked forward like stilts. His sandaled feet smacked the pavement, split yellow toenails jutting beyond the soles.
It was a hot day, but Molech did not sweat.
On each side of Molech, the City loomed in rows of silver skyscrapers and elegant office buildings. High above, the midday sun gleamed off a mirrored building, but its rays cut across the City skyline, leaving the street in shadow. Molech lurched north through the tunnel of buildings, pressing his bony shoulders forward into the strong, fierce wind. The wind tore at the awning of a local sandwich shop and hustled a mound of cigarette butts and crumpled yellow flyers southward in the gutter. It whipped at Molech’s shirt and his pants and threatened to tear from his tightly pressed fingers a small, white, printed appointment card. The hot wind smelled of fried batter and smoked meat and beer, but Molech was not hungry.
As Molech advanced up the street, a couple at the sandwich shop glanced at each other. They slipped off the round pub stools at their café table and went inside. Two water glasses sat deserted on the table. Molech slowed, staring at the glasses. He tried to catch the thing niggling in the back of his brain.
Molech’s shoulder collided with a solid body. It was a cop checking meters. “Sorry,” Molech mumbled, redirecting to the center of the sidewalk.
The officer watched Molech stagger on. He saw Molech pass into a thick cloud of steam ascending from an open manhole. He saw the steam engulf Molech. He saw three teens stumble out of the steam, their heads turned back the way they came.
Molech emerged from the steam into a puddle of sunshine pooling down across a wide avenue full of honking cars and taxis and busses rushing east and west. He paused at the curb. He pressed and folded the appointment card in his hand, creasing it in two and in three. He looked east and saw the avenue stretching down the hill toward the bay. He saw the sun glinting off the water and off the steel cables of the suspension bridge. Agitated cars and taxis and busses were shoving across the bridge, frantic to get out of the city. He heard yelling and honking and the cry of seagulls swooping over the bridge. He smelled the salt air.
An attractive woman in red heels waltzed up beside Molech and glanced over. Molech looked down at her. He was very tall. The woman’s eyes widened, and she clicked off rapidly down the hill. “Taxi!” she called, lifting her hand. A taxi swooped up, and she jumped in, and they drove off.
Molech looked west. He saw the avenue stretching away and up the hill. He saw a huge hotel one block over with its name in fancy, shiny script set with white lights, like diamonds in a platinum setting. Twenty yellow taxis were crammed into the half circle of the hotel veranda, and more were lined up behind. People in suits and slim dresses went in and out under the wide blue awning.
Molech saw a dark-haired woman leaning against the smooth stone facing by the door of the hotel. She was wearing a wispy black skirt and a green sleeveless top, and she held a stack of yellow papers. Now and then she handed one to a passer-by. Her shirt must have been covered in sequins, because it glinted in the sun as she turned.
Molech saw her watching him.
A bellboy in a blue jacket and red gloves came out of the hotel. He walked over to the woman. He was big and angry in his uniform.
Move on ma’am, Molech heard him saying in his mind. You’re bothering our guests.
I’ve got a right to be here, the woman protested. She brandished her papers in the air.
Get on out of here, before I call the police! The bellboy gripped the woman’s shoulders in his hands. She shook him off. Her hand loosened and the wind snatched the papers away in a bright tornado of sunshine yellow. They whipped into the street and around the corner and one smacked flat against Molech’s thigh.
Molech pulled the paper loose and glanced at it. Melina’s Medicinals, it said. The woman stared back at him from the page, her eyes dark and piercing.
The light turned and the cars stopped rushing east and west and starting rushing north and south. A swarm of people surged into the street and Molech did too, folding the paper once, twice against his chest. He shoved it in his pocket. The people moving south parted widely for him as he passed, some staring and some blinking and some looking down and some hurrying by. Molech reached the north side and walked half a block, then stopped and looked down at his appointment card. He unfolded it and read:
Dr. Remus Kwakzalver
427 Green St., Ste. 530
Molech looked for the number on the office building next to him. Above the doors, large, brass, sans-serif figures announced: 427 Green St. Molech pulled open one of the etched glass doors by its brass handle and went inside.
Molech missed the elevator by a moment. He just caught a glance of a young woman in a pale pink blouse, her face slightly alarmed, hurriedly pressing a button, before the doors slid shut. He took the stairs instead. By the time he reached the fifth floor, he was breathing rapidly. He staggered down the hall to the doctor’s office and checked in.
“Have a seat, please, Mr. Molech,” the receptionist said through the thin slit she’d left open in the plexiglass window.
Molech sat down in a deep purple chair with red dots on it. He put his elbows on his knees and rested his head in his hands. He felt his bones press against bones. He felt the roughness of his cracked skin on his palms. He hoped the doctor could help him. He imagined himself going home and Leah being there. He imagined himself telling her: I’m cured! and her staying with him.
Twenty-six minutes later, Molech slid onto the stiff paper of the bench in the examination room. He wore a thin, sleeveless paper gown that reached his mid-thighs. The walls of the examination room were the color of dried mustard, with pinstripes of deep blue. The ceiling was the kind that looks dangerous, the kind with little sharp drips of plaster all over. A vent in the ceiling blew air conditioning down the open back of his paper gown.
The doctor entered the room. He was bald except for a U-shaped fringe of white hair around his crown. He wore thin wire glasses and a pressed, white lab coat. He wore thick white gloves. He carried a clipboard and a pen. His eyes flashed over Molech from head to toe to head again.
“Well, Mr. Molech,” the doctor said, examining the clipboard. “How are you feeling since we spoke on the phone?”
“Better, I think,” Molech croaked. It was a lie. He felt worse. He ran his tongue over his lips, but there was no moisture there to wet them.
“Hmm,” the doctor said. He sounded disappointed. He looked in Molech’s eyes, ears, nose, and down his throat. He asked Molech some questions. He listened to his heartbeat. He pricked Molech’s finger and put a drop of blood on a strip of paper. He asked some more questions. The whole time, he touched Molech only with his gloved hands. He did not lean in too close.
“Just wait here, Mr. Molech,” the doctor said finally. “This will only take a few minutes.”
Molech sat in the examination room and waited. He counted the plaster drips on the ceiling. He counted the stripes on the wall. He imagined himself touching Leah again, and her not shrinking away.
The door opened, and the doctor came in.
The doctor looked at Molech. He blinked. He cleared his throat. “The truth is, Mr. Molech …” He cleared his throat again. “The truth is: You don’t have long to live.”
“No, no,” Molech said. His throat was very dry. He stretched out a hand toward the doctor. “Isn’t there anything you can do for me?” He stood up. “Please help me!” he said.
The doctor stepped back out of reach. He considered a moment. He reached into a drawer and pulled out a tab of two poison-green pills. He jimmied the pills across his gloved hand like a con artist.
“Take these,” he said. He tossed Molech the green pills. “If you happen to live longer, you can get more at the pharmacy.” He placed a scribbled prescription on the counter.
“What will they do for me?” Molech asked.
“Kill you faster, most likely,” the doctor said. He wrote something on the clipboard.
“These will kill me,” Molech repeated, staring down at the pack of pills in his hand.
“Yes, yes,” said the doctor. He motioned for Molech to go. “Take them today. Call me in a week if you’re still alive.”
Molech pushed through both of the double glass doors of the office building into the street, clutching the green pills in his hand. He turned right and walked north very quickly. He ignored the living people streaming around him, their trajectory smooth and even as if he emitted a magnetic field that governed their path. He walked and walked and walked against the wind until he reached the rise of the hill. It was very windy there, and he stopped and leaned into the wind and looked at the green pills in his hand. He pushed one pill through the silver foil. He pushed the second pill through the silver foil.
Molech looked at the pills in his hand and dropped the empty tab in the street.
He rolled the pills in the palm of his hand.
Abruptly, Molech shoved the green pills into his pocket. His fingers touched paper, and he pulled it out and opened the yellow flyer. Medina’s Medicinals.
Molech crossed the street, turned south and strode down the hill. He walked so fast that he slammed into a woman picking out plums from an outdoor fruit stand. She dropped her net sack of fruit and gasped in pain, but Molech didn’t hear. He was half a block away already.
When Molech reached the cross street, he turned right and walked to the hotel.
The woman who had been there earlier was gone, but the tall bellboy, in his blue jacket and red gloves, soon came out. He was pushing a metal dolly loaded with leather suitcases, lifting them into a waiting limousine. A woman with a diamond bracelet and four-inch heels stalked out of the revolving door, and Molech saw the hundred she slipped into the bellboy’s hand as she seated herself in the limo.
The bellboy shut the limo door, and the crisp, new bill vanished, but Molech recognized the sleight-of-hand that slid the greenback up his sleeve.
Molech waited until he approached.
“Excuse me,” he croaked.
The large bellboy looked at him. His face paled a bit, but he did not move away.
“Move on, now,” he said. “Your type can’t be loitering around here.”
“I just want to know—”
“Move on, I said!” The bellboy squared his shoulders.
Molech thrust out his arm and gripped the bellboy’s wrist with iron fingers. His thumb found the bit of skin just above the bellboy’s glove.
“No!” the bellboy cried. “Let me go!”
“Tell me where the woman went—the woman who was here an hour ago, giving out flyers.”
“Let me go!” the bellboy screamed. He struggled. Sweat streamed down his face. Fine lines began to form around his eyes.
A crowd gathered.
“The woman—where is she?” Molech hissed. He stretched out a hand toward the bellboy’s face.
“She went that way!” The bellboy pointed over his shoulder, up the hill. “I don’t know! Don’t touch me!”
With a twist of his fingers, Molech released the bellboy, who sank back against the stone wall of the hotel. Molech lurched under the awning, through the crowd, and up the hill.
Once he’d gone a hundred yards, he slipped three crisp bills into his pocket next to the green pills.
Molech unfolded the yellow paper again and read the fine print. There was an address. He didn’t know the street. There was a small, hand-drawn map. He followed it.
Fifteen minutes later, Molech turned down a dark, stone-paved alley and spotted a little wooden sign that said Medina’s Medicinals. Molech went down the concrete steps under the sign. As he pushed open the door, a bell jingled lightly. The shop was dim and dusty. It smelled pungent and grassy, like herbs and old books. A fly buzzed in the rays drifting in from two small windows, resting on wooden shelves lined with jelly jars of varying sizes.
Molech shut the door behind him softly. Now he was here, he did not want to see the woman. He was afraid to see her, afraid of the way it made him feel when he hurt the bellboy. He walked down one aisle. He read the labels on the jars: Wart Remover. Sinus Pain. Mother’s Milk Tea. He ran his fingers over the jar lids, circling them, testing them, praying the energy from one jar would speak to the longing pulsing in his limbs, in his fingertips, in his throat, in his gut. Eye Salve. Digestive Drops. Goat’s Milk Balm.
Molech gripped the jar of balm and turned the lid. It was full of a thick cream that smelled like almonds. He dug his large fingers in the narrow mouth of the jar and scooped out as much as he could manage. He plastered it on his face, his neck, his arms. He felt a cool sensation flood across his skin. He scooped more out and lifted his pant legs and rubbed his calves.
“Can I help you?”
The woman—Medina, he supposed—stood at the end of the aisle, her back to the light, her face shadowed. She was taller than Molech had realized, almost as tall as him, and willowy, nymph-like. A thin line of light glowed along her smooth, bare shoulders.
“That jar of balm is $18,” she said.
“I’ll take all you have.” Molech searched the shelf for more of the same. He had used half of the first jar, and already he could feel the cooling effects subsiding.
Medina came to him and lifted two jars from a different shelf. “This is all I have,” she said. “It will take me a few days to make more.”
“I’ll take it.” Molech followed her to the front of the store. She set the jars on the counter and turned to face him.
She stared. “I saw you,” she said. “I saw you earlier.”
“I’m hard to miss,” Molech said.
Medina sighed. “This balm will not cure you,” she said. “It can only bring a little physical relief.”
“Do you have anything that can cure me?”
She pressed her full lips together. She rested her palms on the counter. “A cure is impossible,” she said.
Something in her voice tugged at his mind.
It’s impossible, Leah had said, standing at the door. You will never change.
But I love you.
Sometimes love is selfish, Leah said.
Molech seized Medina’s wrists. She struggled, but Molech pulled her forward across the counter and kissed her. He kissed her and kissed her like he had this one chance to kiss a woman in his whole life and never would again. He drank her like an athlete drains a glass. He gripped her like a man drowning grips his rescuer. He tasted her health and beauty and life and was not satisfied.
When he leaned back, the lines had already spread across her forehead and cheeks and down her neck. “What have you done?” she gasped through chapped lips. She looked in horror at her hands, her wrists still gripped in Molech’s hands. They were withering—shriveling and shrinking fast away.
“Sometimes love is selfish,” Molech said.
“Love—!” Her eyes were wide, watching him, telling him things he already knew. She was dessicating in front of his eyes, drying up, dehydrating, dying. She was dry like an old log now, dry like a mummy; she was breaking into pieces; she was disintegrating into fine dust.
She sifted through his fingers into a pile behind the counter.
Molech laid a hundred dollar bill by the register and put the three jars of balm in a paper sack. He shut the door of the shop carefully behind him and climbed the concrete steps.
The meter cop was waiting at the end of the alley. “I’d like a word with you,” he said.
“What?” said Molech, looking down the hill.
“Littering,” said the policeman. “Assault. Theft. Murder. I’ve been following you.”
Molech frowned. “You have the wrong man,” he said.
The policeman snorted. “You’re too easy to identify,” he said. “You can’t deny it was you.”
“Maybe not,” said Molech.
The City was kind to Molech and hid him. He ran and ran, down alleys and up side streets, across restaurant patios and through crowded squares. He dropped the sack with the goat’s milk balm in a potted plant. He stole a hat from a stand and shoved it on his head. He ditched his blue button-up and ran in his undershirt. At last he ducked down a side street, sat down on an upturned bucket behind a dumpster and caught his breath. He touched his forehead. It was dry.
In the morning, Molech was not dead. He got up and walked. His legs ached, and it was hot and muggy, and Molech felt inside that he would die soon. He fingered the green pills in his pocket as he walked.
After a while, Molech came to a school. It was a red brick school with a wrought iron fence all around it. Children in plaid uniforms and knee socks played in the schoolyard. A little girl with a round face and thick brown braids watched Molech from the swings.
When all the other children went inside, the girl walked over to Molech. “Here,” she said. She handed him a glass bottle with a straw in it through the iron bars.
Molech took the bottle. He sucked at the straw, and a cool wetness flooded over his tongue. He sucked again, but the bottle was nearly empty. The last elusive drops slipped back down the straw.
“It’s empty,” he said. He was desperately thirsty.
“Come on,” the girl said. She wasn’t afraid. She walked beside him, she in the schoolyard, he on the sidewalk, the iron fence between them, until they came to the corner where the fence turned. “There.” She pointed across the street.
Molech looked. It was the entrance to a park, a small, green oasis in acres of cement. He turned to thank the girl, but she was running toward the school, her pigtails flying.
Molech walked to the park, his legs aching with every step. He entered the park. It was thickly wooded, with green oaks and maples growing up strong from the ground, delicate green ferns unfurling at their base, lush green grass carpeting the earth. He walked down the path until he heard the noise of water. He saw a bubbling spring gushing from a rock, flowing into a stream burbling by the path. He saw green willows bending along its banks.
Molech eased down under the curtain of willow branches and dropped to his knees. He set the bottle down, and his fingers sank into the thick green moss of the bank. He felt as if they were going down deep into the earth, as if he was being drawn in, down down down. He felt his hands thickening, healing, restoring, the flesh covering the knuckles once more, the skin growing supple and strong. He imagined himself touching faces—Leah’s, the bellboy, the woman—and the faces becoming smooth and whole. He dropped his head toward the water and saw his own face reflected in it. He saw that he was dry, and he knew that he was dying of thirst.
Molech slid his arms down into the cool, gurgling water and leaned his palms against the large flat stones at the bottom of the stream. He bent his head until his lips touched the water, and he drank.
©2014 Deborah King