A Place for Strangers and Beggars, Chapter 03

If you’re thinking, what is the point in this story? There isn’t one, honest!

A Place for Strangers and Beggars

Walter Kovacs

Carter promptly woke up in a start and…

Hit her head against the shelf that was directly just above her headstand.

Wincing, she slowly drifted back down over her pillow, clutching her aching head, seeing stars. As soon as the pain subsided, she let out a snort, still drifting in between sleep and consciousness. She slapped a hand over her face and rubbed at her nose and at another white patch – more dried saliva – all the while groaning incoherently. She dazedly looked at her clock – eight am – oh crap, she was going to be late… oh wait, the chief gave her a few days off.

Grumbling under her breath, she rubbed at her eyes and looked to the side.

A man was lying, sprawled over her sofa, a few feet opposite her bed.

Carter jerked upright, careful not to hit her head this time against the shelf. Her eyes went wide, horrified – and she stared. At first, she stared for a long time, as if not believing her eyes. Then she slowly crawled out of bed, slinked to the floor and groped all her way up to the sofa. She rose upwards head first, eyes levelling the seat, imitating the way how crocodiles wading in rivers snuck up on their unsuspecting prey at the riverbanks.

Her eyes swam over the figure who was lying perched over the seats, his gloved hand grasping the edge of an unfluffed pillow, his back to her. The mask was still pulled over her his head, his hat askew on the floor. She heard loud, if not, peaceful yet thunderous, bulbous snoring; his chest heaved up and down, and she winced slightly at the sound. It was rather unhealthy, that was for sure. The jacket was recognisable; it wasn’t a deep, dark, muddy brown as she thought it was – maybe because of the difference between light and night-time.

Her Mr Potato Head doll that was usually seated proudly on the sofa lay on the floor, missing his top hat, eyebrows and moustache, usurped of his throne by this smelly, snoring man-thing who was clearly Rorschach.

She looked briefly around her room – good, there was no sight of discarded clothes or crushed beer cans – That meant no hanky-panky had happened yesterday night. She crawled back after replacing Mr Potato Head on her mantelpiece, beside a collection of other Crimebuster figurines she had shamelessly collected over the years, then used a hand to clutch at her chest. She didn’t know what to do.

Oh my god. A man. I have a man in my apartment. On my sofa. Sleeping. He’s probably a half-man thing, but still. A man. And he’s from the Crimebusters. Wait till the girls back in the office hear about this…

What happened yesterday night? Oh yes, she accidentally triggered the security. It was Dr Manhattan, who appeared in the maze before them, and helped them escape by teleporting them back to safety, but Rorschach had already gotten hurt in progress. Because of her.

Because of her.

Some useless, clumsy girl who just got in the way and couldn’t stop screaming. After Dr Manhattan courteously dropped them off back at her apartment, she guessed she’d just flung herself over her bed and started to drift off to dreamland, with Rorschach making himself comfortable and at home on her sofa. Embarrassed with the entire ordeal, Carter bit her lip, feeling guilt wash over her when she gaped at the wrapped gauze around his wounded leg. How could she even sleep so well last night?

They managed nothing; Blair was still missing.

She realised the telephone wire had been pulled out – maybe because her sister had kept calling, wanting to find out, wanting to ask questions, wanting to know what was going on: Had Blair been found? How are you partnering with Rorschach?

…Had Blair been found???

Screaming silently into the pillow she brought down with her, Carter whipped the pillow back down and rubbed furiously at her temples. She gaped at Rorschach’s back bitterly, and reached out a shaking hand – but then decided against it – he’d wake up in his own time. Besides…who knows what kind of vigilante reflexes he had adopted from over years of fighting robbers, rapists and murderers? He obviously didn’t like anyone touching him.

Yet, she knew she had to repay him somehow.

She crawled out of the room; still in her baggy, grubby pyjamas which she must’ve gotten changed in during the course of the night. On the way out, she grabbed a pair of pants and a hooded top; as she left her room, she shut the door behind her, stopped in the living room. She winced at the amount of mess lying around. She delved for a magazine that was lying on the table among other scattered belongings, and raked through.

When Carter came to a poster of Dr Manhattan, she carefully tore it out, then found some sticky tack and put the poster up on a space on the living room wall. She back away, marvelling at the poster, then promptly settled down on her knees and bowed respectively three times. She would never forget the fact that he had saved their lives.

When she was finished in her worshipping ordeal, she got changed in the bathroom and moved to the kitchen. She didn’t know what Rorschach ate. Could be anything, if he wasn’t human. Maybe she’d leave a selection. Like the ways hotels did for their guests at those all-you-can-eat buffets.

Therefore, she left out the following: Cereal. Heinz Baked Beans. Bananas (if he really was part gorilla). A fillet of cooked salmon (if he was part bear), and a pack of working AA Duracell batteries (if he was part robot). She even left him her trusty can opener, and a box containing First Aid remedial items, in case he did wake up.

She smiled smugly at herself, deducing that treating him to a free breakfast would be good, and opened her fridge. The smile dropped. She had no eggs left. Or bread. She checked the rest of her fridge. No milk, either. She shut the door, blinked slowly, then trotted towards the front door and put on her shoes.

Wait.

Her belongings.

Sure, Rorschach didn’t seem like the petty thief, but she’d rather not risk anything. Just in case. Still, it felt bad of her to accuse Rorschach of anything, especially theft. But she’d just met the guy, and he proved to be very…eccentric. She grabbed a bag and quickly dumped in all her valuables. Her debit card. Her passport. ID. Purse. The TV remote control. No wait, he could watch some TV if he wanted. She left the remote control on the table, and trudged out of the front door.

Once outside, she made her way to the grocery store quickly, pocketing her cash. It was still raining; a traffic jam was building up on the road. She should’ve had a cup of tea before she left, she realised, feeling tired, drained and exhausted. She wondered if Rorschach woke up every morning like this. And if he did, where did he live? Did he have any family?

Her thoughts were burst when she found herself standing at the end of a fifteen-people strong queue. The grocery store was heavily understaffed today. She groaned.

Twenty minutes later, she’d finally bought the eggs and milk and passed the redheaded man who usually held the sign. He looked dishevelled as usual as the rain fell about around him making him look more dreary and befitting to the sign’s message.

If the end was nigh, then today would be a good day, she figured.

She threw a quick glimpse to him from the corner of her eyes; he didn’t smile or even blink when she passed him. At first, she halted in mid-step, her eyes wide at the sight of him, as if he had sprouted three heads. Then she began walking again; once she was a good distance away from him, she stopped in her pace once more, turned round, then hurriedly walked back towards him, feeling marvellously generous today, which was rare.

He stared at her.

She stared at him.

His eye twitched.

Maybe I should say something. She thought. Break the tension. Ask him why he always looks at me like that… like as if I’m some kind of alien freak.

 Carter swallowed down.

“Um. Hello.”

There was no response.

“…You.” She began, swallowing down the lump in her throat. She realised he wasn’t that tall; she came up to his shoulders. This guy was probably about forty something years old or more. Maybe he was entering his mid-life crisis. Maybe that was why he looked so mean and angry. He had a few wrinkles. A spray of freckles. Some weird scab on his chin, and a terrible scar; a wound that never healed physically and mentally. He looked positively dehydrated and his skin was dull, pallid and bland. He had a lot of stubble. Stubble was still tolerable in her eyes. If a man had a beard, she would shriek like a harpy and claw his eyes out.

He merely watched her, still as quiet and elusive as ever. His eye twitched again, though. Was he glaring?

She brushed aside the fact that she was standing a little too close for comfort, and could detect his stench again. She inhaled a breath of fresh air and held it in. she tried to look at him in the eye, even if the smell made her eyes water. She tried hard, honest. “Are you sick of it all?”

Still, he said nothing. He blinked s-l-o-w-l-y, and Carter was ready to scream in his face and give up before storming away.

She began to get nervous. “You…You keep carrying that sign around. Did you make that sign yourself? Are you getting paid twelve bucks an hour just for standing there, or have you really given up on humanity?” Carter had no idea what she was saying, yet she ranted and raved on.

But then the most oddest thing happened. His mouth opened, and Carter gawped at a row of dirty, stained teeth, and he spoke. “Have you?

Carter’s mouth opened a little to some extent. She hadn’t expected him to speak. “…No. Not yet.” She croaked out.

Silence.

The look he gave her, she figured, was not if she was some sort of alien freak, but as if she was some psycho alien freak. His eyebrows furrowed tightly, and the corner of his lip twitched. And Carter stepped back in fright when his expression seemed to have darkened thoroughly.

H-Have I offended him????

She knew this would be what she would get by striking up conversation with a suspicious-looking man like him. Carter’s lip wobbled. She took this as a cue to leave…by backing slowly away from him, before spinning back round on her heels and making a mad, frantic dash for towards the direction of her apartment without throwing a second glance over her shoulder, praying that he wasn’t following her and yelling ‘The End is Nigh! The End is Nigh!’ while thrashing and waving his sign around.

Carter returned back to her apartment, her heart pounding for almost no reason, well, aside from the fact that she was somewhat unfit and she had just broke into a mile-long sprint without prior warm-up; she calmed herself down, thinking that she should never ever go out again in case she saw him. It was her fault anyway; she’d provoked him and let curiosity get the better of her. She looked around her home; her trusty can opener was lying on the table, and Rorschach was gone, judging by the open bedroom door and window. The first aid box was open, its contents all misplaced. There was a note on the fridge door, held up by her smiley-face magnet.

It said: Helped myself to some beans. Hope you don’t mind. Will come back this evening.

Well, of course he was gone. She’d made him wait for almost half an hour. What really surprised her was that he would come back. She walked up to the counter, picking up the empty can and taking the spoon out. She shuddered. “He ate them cold? Eww. Hope he doesn’t get stomach worms…”

She looked around her apartment sullenly, and kicked at the ground absent-mindedly.

“…Now what do I do?”

………

Carter walked aimlessly down the street; trying not to make eye contact or bump into anyone. The streets were too crowded these days; polluted and congested with pedestrians and vehicles alike. She didn’t know how to contact Rorschach, and wondered what the possibilities of her finding him actually were. She didn’t think he’d come out in daylight, anyway. Eventually, she arrived at a newsstand; looked at the vendor and smiled at him when he looked up.

“…Hi, just…er, browsing.” She said, shifting to an empty space on the sidewalk so she wasn’t getting in anyone’s way, as the newsvendor, who everyone knew as ‘Bernard’, looked up from his newspaper and smiled back at her politely.

“You don’t want your copy of Cosmo?”

“Nah. Not today. In fact, can you remove my subscription? I haven’t really had the time to collect them, let alone read them…”

“Oh, well, of course, Miss Carter – “ He was interrupted by a dark shadow hovering over the front of the news stand, and they looked up at the newcomer.

Immediately, Carter irked. Him again! That dirty, smelly old man who kept giving her weird looks. Small world, indeed! She swallowed down, uneasiness welling in the pit of her gut. She watched him beadily; but this time, he completely ignored her, collected his copy of News Frontiersman. And Carter, with her stomach sucked in, was ready to let out a breathe of relief until he flicked his icy blue eyes at her, and she stiffened immediately, unnerved by his steely gaze. She looked away from him, refusing to meet his eye, becoming engrossed with a spider wriggling beside her shoe on the grimy sidewalk. He then turned back round, and left. Just like that. She involuntarily shuddered as she turned to Bernard.

“Why do I keep seeing him around these parts?”

“Well, apparently he lives just down the street.”

“Oh.”

“Is he a regular customer?” She began morosely, when she was sure the man was out of hearing range. Weirdo weirdo weirdo! Her mind chimed, before long, it was followed by: Freak freak freak!

“Yeah.” Bernard replied, leaning back in his chair.

“Doesn’t speak much, does he?” She said, raising an eyebrow, “What is he?”

“What do you mean, what is he? He’s human, just like the rest of us.”

“You know him?”

“Not really. But he’s been here for ages, you know. Always carrying that sign around. People think he’s a loon.” Bernard looked at her and raised an eyebrow, circling his temple with his finger, making that ‘crazy cuckoo person’’ gesture, “Do you know him?”

“What? Of course not. He’s been here for ages? How come I’ve never noticed him…?”

“I dunno.” Bernard snorted. Then he grinned, “Maybe because you’re too high and mighty to acknowledge us simple people.”

“…Do I really give off that vibe?” She breathed out, as the moment of sudden realisation and great truth had hit her.

“Well, everytime I see you come to get your magazine, you keep bragging about the office you work in and your six-figure salary.”

“Oh.” Carter replied back glumly. “…I’m sorry, I don’t mean to give off that vibe at all. And I don’t get a six figure salary. Hey, this isn’t about me. This is about him. The sign guy.”

“What about him?”

“Do you know his name?”

In return, Bernand responded, “Why are you interested in him?”

“I-I’m not. It’s just…I completely ignored him. Didn’t even know about his existence. Until yesterday – He…He kinda saved my life.”

“He ‘kinda’ saved your life?”

“Yeah…I got pushed out to edge of the platform of the subway yesterday during rush hour. He grabbed me before I could fall. Left a dirty handprint on my good suit though. It’s not going away.” She frowned; just thinking about it made her angry.

Bernard snorted with laughter.

Carter blinked, then pointed to the redhead’s retreating back in the crowd and spluttered to Bernard helplessly, “O-Okay, I kinda remembered something… and I really don’t know if I’m imagining things, but… D-Did you see that look he gave me? It was…Well, it was like…total…pure…undeniably cold…hatred.” She hissed out the last word through gritted teeth.

“Are you sure?” Bernard said, grinning at her as he flipped a page of his paper.

“Is he…kooky?”

“No, I just think he was checking you out.”

She frowned profoundly. “Oh, what do you know?? You’re just a kooky old man, too!”

“The newsvendor knows all. We have much more wisdom than you common folk.” Bernard said, immersing himself into the world of newsprint again.

“Pffft.” She shook her head vigorously, recoiling from shock. “Urgh, thinking about it makes me want to be sick. Yuck. Okay, oh god. Oh my, that’s creepy. Don’t say that again! You’re scaring me!!” She fumed, clenching her fists, and Bernard laughed regardless. “Don’t you ever say that again. It’s not funny at all.”

…………

Later on the day, Carter was busy spooning ice cream into her mouth, flicking lazily through TV channels, yawning. The telephone was still unplugged. With no news about Blaire, she couldn’t bear to talk to her sister, as cruel and hurtful as it might be. She didn’t know what she was now waiting for, but she kept throwing sideways glances to the windows, a little nervously. She knew she had to get something done. Rorschach was her only hope…as much as she didn’t want to admit. Carter clenched the spoon tighter.

I shouldn’t need a man to depend on. I can do things perfectly myself.

Her stomach rumbled and she dumped the ice cream carton on the table and walked up to the microwave; it was a new model her brother-in-law bought for her as a welcoming-home present. He shouldn’t have. His salary as a contemporary bus driver couldn’t even cover the mortgage. Her apartment was small, with one bedroom and a bathroom the size of a closet. The living room, which served as a dining room, was conjoined to the kitchen, but separated by a tall, folding screen. Usually, she stayed at the office or even at a friend’s house. The rent of her apartment (though she enjoyed calling it a ‘penthouse’) was absurd, but because it was described to be situated in a ‘good’ neighbourhood. Regardless, being in the apartment almost felt like a new experience to her.

She looked at the microwave; it was white, large and bulky. Not too convenient, but, practical. She never had the chance to use it, not that she really wanted to use microwaves in the first place. She found a microwavable pasta meal stuffed in the depths of her freezer, perhaps a week old – tagliatare, it said on the cover, three hundred and sixty nine calories – and she ripped off the clear plastic cover and shoved it inside the cooking device, and switched it on. It beeped.

Ahh great. How does this work?

 

While she tried to work out how to use this ever-enigmatic microwave, scratching at her head in confusion while looking for instructions – someone pounded furiously on her front door. Looking away from the microwave, Carter put down the pasta meal and made her way to the door, shuffling on the ground along the way. She unlocked it, and opened it to a small extent.

It was Rorschach.

Or, whatever that swirling, black and white visage in front of her was.

She blinked. “Mr Rorschach?”

He grunted. “Windows too small. Couldn’t get in. Had to use front door.” He then gestured to the safety chain, and she quickly got the message; she pulled it off, allowing the door to open to a larger extent, and permitted him inside.

“How is your leg?”

“Fine.”

He stormed inside her tiny apartment, standing amidst litter consisting of used sanitary towels, pizza boxes, Chinese take-out, hamburger cases, pick n’mix bags and other oven-baked meals. He stood, with hands in his pockets and she cringed; perceiving that under his mask, he was clearly uncomfortable. He eyed his surroundings. Dirty female, he noted. Bad, unsanitary habits. Too much litter. Would think a pig lived here, not a human. Breeding ground for maggots.

Carter didn’t realise how lazy and how much of a slob she was. No wonder her sister got married first. After a brief moments of awkward silence, she uttered out, “…I was going to make dinner – “

“Not hungry.” He interrupted quickly, eyeing her warily behind the mask.

She didn’t realise the look he was throwing her, but she was suddenly seized by an uneasy feeling in her gut…She shivered again. “C-Can I ask you a favour, Mr Rorschach?”

“What is it.”

Carter actually hesitated to say this. “…This guy has been giving me weird looks in the street. Do you think you could… sort him out for me? Tell him off or something? I really don’t know what he wants… and I don’t know what I did to offend him, but I just don’t feel safe anymore. He’s really making me feel scared, and uncomfortable…”

“Name?”

“I don’t know.” She shrugged. She couldn’t help but ask herself this crucial question: Was this really the way to repay the man who saved her life? She pondered for a brief moment, then – Yeah. He’s strange. May case an accident if left… unattended.

“Description.” Rorschach grunted out.

“Uh…He’s a redhead. I think he’s homeless…He carries this huge sign – it says ‘The End is Nigh’. He never smiles. Always frowning. Looks really mean. You can’t miss him.”

Carter glanced back at Rorschach.

He was silent.

She blinked, looked to the side then back. “…Mr Rorschach?” She took a small step towards him, as she eyed him inquisitively, squinting an eye at him, “Mr Rorschach…? Are you alright?? Is something wrong?”

He looked back up at her, then grumbled under his breath, delving his pockets deeper into his jacket. “…Will look into matter when free.” He croaked out.

Her face lit up. Wow. Have I just sic Rorschach on a poor, unknowing, innocent guy??? “…Alright, thanks a lot! Phew, now I can sleep better at night… Wait right there — I have to get something, before we go.” She ran back to her bedroom, shut the door.

And Rorschach was left to stand, feeling confused, but also cheap and dirty all of a sudden.

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