Café Yesterday, Chapter One
by Rus VanWestervelt
At first, Devin let the panic consume him almost as fully as the speed with which he was falling. The panic started much earlier, of course, when he was still on the ridge, that first slip and then the desperate lunge for the small branch that gave him just enough time to realize what was happening.
He had been in the woods for nearly three days, hiding, surviving, eluding Jake and the others who wanted him dead. Their reasons were no different than any of the others; Jake was just better at the game. He had a way of running his business that way: smooth, clean, with a reputation of giving you every break you deserved—and then some. But when your time was up, when you had crossed that line and missed his final deadline, Jake made sure the payback was swift. It just made good business sense to clean up and move on.
But Devin was different from the others who had crossed that line. Everybody who knew of his survival skills in the woods was already dead, and so he played the role of the senseless fool to Jake and all the others, knowing that when he needed to fall back on being a Rambo in the woods, he would fool them all.
Jake was hundreds of miles south, still in Baltimore, combing the Medfield district one block at a time, getting a little more agitated with each homeless idiot who hadn’t seen Devin in days. They suppressed their smiles, their laughter in seeing Jake a little unnerved by Devin’s disappearance. Stevie and the others on the street knew better than to let Jake sense their delight; marked men like Devin didn’t survive this long, and the fact that Jake was now the one conducting the search-and-kill mission told them all that this payback was anything but swift. Something was going wrong. They hoped Devin was enjoying this brief reprieve; once Jake found him, the payback would be anything but swift. Devin was in for a slow and torturous end to his life.
Devin knew it would be this way with Jake. In the past, death was never waiting at the end of the game. He had been beaten badly a few times, and one of them—Carl—had dished out his paybacks by getting a little too friendly with Devin’s little sister. Jake’s rules were different; his reputation rested on his kindness and faith in his customers to honor their end of the contract. When they didn’t, it was never a question how it would turn out. It was a matter of when.
In the seconds before the thin branch snapped and Devin slipped over the cliff’s edge, he cracked a smile in his panic at the irony of eluding Jake. He had made it this far north without a soul following him. He had been extremely careful in remaining anonymous since leaving Baltimore. He had pocketed the last few sales of smack to give him enough cash to run, and the slate-gray Honda Civic he stole from the Fullerton Park-and-Ride was too common to warrant a stop along I-95. Devin was 400 miles away before Jake—or anybody else for that matter—had even realized that he had run. As far as the world was concerned, Devin Andrews had disappeared completely, just as if he had never existed at all.
The smile didn’t last long, though. The crisp crack of the branch wiped all expression from his face. His feet dug into the dry dirt trying to get some kind of leverage, but the ground crumbled beneath him as pebbles and patches of grass tumbled down into the ravine, lost in the darkness. He was at least 100 feet from the bottom (as far as he could tell), and he was nearly certain that he would not survive the fall.
When the branch snapped, he searched desperately to the left, then to the right for something to cling to. Every vine and branch in sight was thinner than the one he held on to, with the exception of a single root about 8 feet below him, protruding from the cliff.
Thank God for the Mighty Oak, Devin thought. The root stuck out about 14 inches, to his left, too far to grab on the way down. In the final few seconds before the branch broke free, he cast his legs to the right to gather momentum for a quick pendulum swing to the left. It was the only way he would be able to grab the root, the last lifeline before he gained too much speed into the darkness.
The plan worked. The branch broke free just as Devin’s legs shifted to the left. He focused all of his energies on stretching his hand out to the protruding root and wrapping his fingers quickly around it. The sensation of relief was instantaneous; he expected almost a chalky coat from the dry dirt, but the wood was damp in his hand, and the smile returned to his face. He had thwarted death once again.
He almost wished Jake could see him now. Would he forgive him of his debt and take him in to work the other side? He had never had so much power, but he imagined that, although the stress would be a little different than having to answer to people like Jake, the thrill would be unparalleled. The control, running the game, and of course, all that money. Yeah, if Jake saw him like this—surviving, even thriving on the edge of death, he’d take him in immediately and see that what he had to offer would be good for business. Damn good.
He looked directly below him and tried to map out a path to safety. There were a few larger rocks jutting out of the cliff to his right, about 5 feet below the outstretched tips of his boots. Another good pendulum swing in the other direction would put him squarely in line to land safely there. He could clearly see the flaw in that drop, though, as there was nothing to cling to once he landed. If he lost his balance at all, he would tip over backward and sink into the abyss. Damn bad.
The dampness in the root he was holding on to was beginning to make his own palm perspire, and he could feel his fingers beginning to slip to the tip of the root, thinning gradually to a strand of life no thicker than a piece of hemp. He knew he had no choice. He repeated the swing of his feet—this time to the left—and let go of the root precisely at the right time. He landed perfectly on the two rocks, and he hugged the cliff in relief, once again.
Devin had exactly 3 seconds before the rocks broke free from the dirt. In that short time, he shouted Jake’s name in his personal triumph of survival; he grinned madly, now certain he had thwarted death. He even hugged the side of the mountain in some twisted sense of camaraderie. They had been there for each other, the mountain and he; it was only natural for him to face this challenge and then defy the pull of gravity, the pull of death. The fact that the mountain helped him was ironic but welcome to Devin, and he knew that, after taking a moment to celebrate this thought and catch his breath, he would look down and find a few more rocks, another root, or even better, a small ledge to sit on.
But those 3 seconds passed quickly. When the rocks crumbled, he went along with them just as fast down the side of the mountain. The panic consumed him instantly once more. At first, he sought out another branch, or rock, or root that might save him, but as quickly as he saw them and stretched his hand to grab on, they passed him by, faster and faster as he fell. His center of weight began to pull him down harder, his backside now falling first into the darkness. In one last attempt to catch a branch from a solitary oak growing out of the side of the cliff, he twisted his body to the right to reach the tree. He used every drop of energy within him to lunge at the oak, and he felt it working. He could see himself wrapping his hand around the branch, outstretched like a savior’s offering, nothing short of a Godsend. He could feel his fingers touch the bark, feel the damp wood once more, sense the cheating of death one last time.
All of that he could envision, but none of it ever had the chance to happen. Devin’s back hit a cluster of rocks and snapped his body like a ragdoll, his arms and legs flailing as he bounced back into the air and then back toward the bottom once more.
There was no more looking for branches or roots, no more efforts to show Jake
That he was tough enough to have his debt forgiven with an invitation to join him on the other side. There was none of that.
Slipping out of consciousness, still falling endlessly into the abyss, Devin struggled to keep his eyes open. His hopes were dim that anything could save him now. He watched the side of the mountain rush by him as if he were on the road, pedal pushed to that metal, screaming along I-95 with the world passing him by. The only difference was that it was now a vertical blur, no brakes, no rest stops. Just down.
Branches brushed him as he fell, scraping into his arms, his face, his back. He ceased wincing after the first few, suddenly dulled to the pain in the realization of what was happening. He closed his eyes, struggled to open them, then closed them again.
When he reopened them for the final time, he caught a glimpse of red on the side of the mountain. It was an intentional red, a crimson that he was certain was nothing more than blood filling his eyes. It passed him quickly, but then reappeared, as if the last second had rewound and replayed. It passed a second time, and appeared once more.
This time, it remained. He never lost the sense of falling, and indeed the rest of the mountain screamed by him, up-up-upward to the sky as he continued to sink further and further into darkness. The crimson remained still long enough for him to discern the figure of a beautiful young woman, dressed in a deep red evening gown. His eyes were drawn to her stunning diamond and emerald necklace, set in soft gold, that caught light from some source unknown and sparkled brightly. She fell with him, or at least the image of her did, and the sad, forlorn face she offered chilled him in these last few seconds.
The crimson figure raised her arms to him
And beckoned him to come to her.
Still falling, and out of control, Devin tried to reach out to her. She smiled sadly, gently, and whispered something to him,
Please come back
but he could not hear her
Or understand her
I need you
Or do anything but continue to fall, with the memory of her whispers and her sorrowful beauty, until all went black, and he hit the bottom of the ravine.
Black. And nothing more, for many days to come.