Oscar awoke from a dream of heaven. Opening his eyes, he saw swollen clouds massed in a dark sky and realized that he was back on earth. No more glittering mansions, no more streets of gold.
He sat up on the bench in MacArthur Park, and the pain that roared through him drove tears into his eyes. His arms, his legs — there was no part of his body that didn’t hurt. He was full of liquid fire that burned him from the inside out.
He lifted his shirt. The makeshift bandage he’d fashioned out of a blue cotton dress he’d found in a Dumpster had slipped out of place, exposing the worst of the bites on his stomach. The edges of the wound were black, and it oozed bloody pus. Afraid to look too closely, Oscar grimaced and slid the bandage back into position.
Struggling to his feet, he hobbled along the concrete path that led to the lake on the other side of the park, careful not to stumble, lest he attract the attention of the security guards who patrolled the area. He was feverish, dizzy. The shouts of a group of boys playing soccer were like nails pounded into his throbbing head as he hurried into the dank, piss-smelling tunnel that passed under Wilshire Boulevard.
When he was midway through the passage, he turned to look over his shoulder, and there is was, the devil that had been following him all day, silhouetted against the square of light at the entrance to the tunnel. Oscar could make out the horns, the tail, the cloven hooves. He’d always known that the time would come when he’d have to pay for his sins, and he was ready, he would go without a fight, but not until he’d said goodbye to Maribel and the baby. Carlos would give him money to go to them. He had to find Carlos.
He came up out of the tunnel and walked next to the lake. A cold wind ruffled the surface of the black water, and an empty paper cup floating there spun round and round like something wounded. Oscar had seen fishermen pull tennis shoes from the murk, a sleeping bag, a rusty sword, and there were rumors of corpses resting on the bottom.
Near the boathouse a fat white duck quacked furiously as Oscar passed by.
“Farewell, my friend,” Oscar said. He’d been talking to birds since he was a child in Guatemala. The other boys had called him St. Francis. Spray from the fountain in the middle of the lake, a flickering plume of water 20 feet high, was like a cool hand on his cheek. He watched the tall palm trees that bordered the park hiss and strike like angry snakes.
At the frantic corner of Wilshire and Alvarado an old man preached the love of Jesus through a cheap megaphone that wreathed his words in static. “Jesus is love! Jesus is power! Jesus is life!” Juanito was there, too, hawking counterfeit i.d. cards. He sat on a fire hydrant and whispered offers at passersby, his eyes constantly moving, alert for police or gangsters who might try to shake him down. Oscar asked if he’d seen Carlos.
“You look like shit,” Juanito said.
“Callate, pendejo. Just tell me where he is.”
“Home Depot, with Francisco. Some white son of a bitch said he’d use them on a painting job today.”
Oscar coughed. The pain buckled his knees, and purple spiders skittered across his eyeballs.
“Come to Jesus!” the old man with the megaphone yelled.
“Yes, come to Jesus,” Oscar said to the devil.
Juanito hissed and shook his head. “You keep talking to yourself, and they’re gonna lock you up.”
Oscar crossed Alvarado and headed east on Wilshire. The delicious smell drifting out of a pupuseria stopped him in his tracks. He hadn’t eaten in two days, couldn’t keep anything down. When he opened the door, the dark-skinned fat woman behind the counter turned away from the portable television she was watching and looked at him. It was a tiny restaurant: two tables with plastic floral-print tablecloths, the specials handwritten on sheets of colored paper tacked to the walls.
“Por favor,” Oscar said. “Can you give a sick man something to eat?”
“Get out of here, you filthy drunk,” the woman shouted.
“This is a respectable place.”
“Por favor, señora.”
The woman picked up the knife she’d been using to chop carrots and pointed it at Oscar.
“Out with you. Now!”
“Fuck you then, you old witch,” Oscar said. He spit on the floor before hurrying outside.
A block later he stopped and leaned against the side of a building. He was wracked by chills that rattled his teeth. God give me strength, he prayed. The devil trotted up the sidewalk toward him. It had a pointy black beard and carried a flaming sword. Oscar saw it best out of the corner of his eye. If he looked at the demon directly, it turned into an old man or a schoolgirl or a mailbox.