Frannie decided, despite having to now carry her groceries by foot, that she was loving life. She had her health and she had her girls after all—Abby, four, and little Jane, with her wet little baby fingers. Frannie walked the dirty cement and cramped claptrap buildings of St. Claude like it was a red carpet. The Bywater air was muddy but she breathed deep.
The sight of the homeless man hunkered by the breezeway between the derelict Shell station and the shuttered sewing shop made Frannie’s thoughts crystal. She was so lucky compared to what unlucky really meant.
The man lifted a pale face, a hand like stray wax.
“Help?” He asked.
His face was quilted with lesions. Vacant eyes. Crowned with blond grime. But this was a person. Of course she would help.
“Sure.” Frannie said, setting her bags down and sorting for change. The man unfurled; stood.
“Ava. Ava Gardner. It is you.”
Frannie giggled at the comparison, even though it tickled her skin in a bad way. “Never heard that one.”
“I need you.” The man said.
A moment later, that waxy hand steered Frannie’s head into the brick wall.
She came to, deep in the gut of the breezeway—lying on ground like a broken tomb, wrists bound behind her in wire hangers, the air now more mud than breath. The man crouched close, wearing her maroon jacket and brimmed hat.
He drew out a syringe. It was caked from use. His fingers quaked.
“This won’t hurt but for a bit, Ava.”
“I’m not Ava!”
“And I’m just a no-account river fellow.” He mounted Frannie like a fever.
“I’m a real person!”
“I want to be a real person too.” His tears already dripped from cankered lips. “I want to be you.”
“No, don’t you see you’re crazy?” Frannie began to wriggle loose the hangers holding her arms.
His eyes dripped six inches above hers. They oozed pleading. “I’ll be better when I’m you.”
The needle scraped her finger. Frannie twitched it away.
“Please, Christ, you’re sick. You have a disease.”
“I do, Ava.” He whined, scraped the needle up her arm. “I have AIDS. And worse.”
“I have to milk blood to keep from running out.”
“No. No, you do not.” Frannie tugged. Tugged again. The hangers peeled off skin as her thumb slid free.
“But I’ll take your life, Ava, and it’ll be better.”
“I have more than a life!” Frannie fought, tossing her head, locking his eyes to hers. “I have two girls. They’re my life. Please, they need me!””
Frannie wrenched an arm loose.
The man stomped her hand flat.
The needle laid its scabs on her jugular vein.
“It’s okay, Ava.” The man tilted his hand and Frannie’s housekeys splayed on the hammering of her heart where they dangled from his wrist. “I’ll take good care of them when they’re mine.”
The needle sank and the man twisted and the blood sprayed thin like milk.