by Sean Benham
They were punishment for a lost bet one day, a curse from a bearded woman the next. The end result of a business venture gone sour, or sometimes it was a deal with the Devil. The edges of the smaller, vertical rectangle were tinged with a faint orange glow that burned from within. The larger, horizontal rectangle was a digital display; it didn’t quite function like a cheap alarm clock, but it sure looked like one. You could have asked him about them a hundred times and you wouldn’t have received the same answer twice. The truth was, he couldn’t remember how he wound up with a coin-op slot and a countdown timer lodged in the middle of his chest.
His name was Carter, most likely. He didn’t have any ID under that name, or any ID at all. What he did have was a jaggy, faded tattoo scrawled across his neck. It either read Carter or Carten, and he didn’t respond kindly to Carten.
Carter was a bum if you appreciated the indelicate; he was perpetually down on his luck if you didn’t. Slice the wording however you like, but one way or the other, he was homeless and used to be a fixture down on Main. He set up in front of the cake shop on weekdays, but when the weekend rolled around, a cupcake or two could usually convince him to relocate a ways down the block. The frame store didn’t care for their unwelcome weekend guest, but they didn’t have much to offer in exchange for him getting off of their stoop.
He was an odd sight, instantly recognizable. His hair did as it pleased, naturally tending to pile in a messy bird’s nest on top of his head. He couldn’t grow a proper beard, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Long, graying scraggles jutted from his upper lip and drooped off of his chin. He was old, most likely. 55? 60? It was hard to say. He was pickled in hard living, indelicately preserved. Carter didn’t dress for practicality or comfort. Winter or summer, rain or shine, he always wore the same crusty brown slacks and battered snow boots, but opting to go without a shirt. He had to show off his moneymaker.