Kiffs

Kiffs

Nightmares of white mountains—

Charles waited outside the apartment, rubbing his hands, blowing into the fold. It was night, and it was supposed to be cold. But the ends of his fingers were numb, and his eyes teared in the raw blasts of the wind tunnels. He didn’t remember it being this cold, but things had changed.

Hector was supposed to already be down. Charles went to the intercom and buzzed 3A.

“You coming?”

Nothing. Charles tried again.

“Hector?”

“Chill out!” The intercom voice was loud and metallic. Charles pulled back, startled.

But he pushed forward to press the button again.

“The Kiffs,” Charles said.

“Man, I’m bringing the Kiffs,” Hector said. “Get off my ass!”

Kiffs was the shorthand for Kiffonio, a kind of Italian tennis shoe that was hard to get in the United States. Somehow, Hector had gotten his hands on a pair.

Charles heard someone running down the stairs. The door opened, and it was Hector with a slim backpack. Charles looked at Hector’s feet. He wasn’t wearing the Kiffs.

“Man, it’s cold,” Hector said. He scrunched his shoulders up and stuck his hands in his coat pocket. “This guy better be loaded.”

“So you have the shoes?” Charles asked.

“What do you mean, ‘Do I have the shoes’?” Hector squinted and cocked his head at Charles. “Are you a drug dealer now?”

Usually, Charles would have a comeback. Hector always ragged on him for what seemed like anything. Charles would say something back, Hector would give the final retort, and Charles would laugh, defeated.

Charles started walking.

“What’s your problem?” Hector asked. “I’m not coming, you’re acting funny…”

Charles turned around. He couldn’t come up with the words, so he pointed at Hector.

“You can’t pass this up,” Charles said. “This will make you. And me.”

Hector loosened his shoulders.

“You’re really serious about this. You’re not pranking me?”

A blistering gust swept down the street. Charles’s cheeks were unfeeling.

“Afterwards, you don’t gotta live here,” Charles said, pointing to the building.

“You’re crazy,” Hector said. Then he looked at the apartment himself. “You’re… crazy.”

“Let’s go,” Charles said. He didn’t want to keep the buyer waiting.

***

“So what’s this guy look like?”

It was after midnight, and they were well out of the Bronx.

“He’s big, but I don’t know how big,” Charles said.

“How do you not know how big he is?” Hector said. “Is he a gang boss? Is this a drug thing? I’m not doing drug things, dude—”

“He was—I don’t know, in the shadows or something.”

“And he wants my Kiffs?”

“He likes shoes,” Charles said. “Has a whole collection. But he can’t buy internationally.”

“Sounds like a criminal,” Hector said.

“No,” Charles said, sighing. “A criminal could do whatever they want. He’s—it’s something else, you know?”

“I don’t know,” Hector said. “Let’s just do the thing. Can’t buy imported shoes? Whatever—I’m ready for some sweet G’s.”

The two walked in tandem without talking.

“What are you going to do with the money?” Hector asked. “I’m going to buy a house in Jersey, get away from Mom—or maybe buy her a house so she gets off my ass. Maybe a car—I don’t really know.”

Charles hadn’t thought about the money. He was worried about Grandma. He was worried about white mountains, whatever they meant. He wanted this to be over.

“I’ll—buy Grandma tickets out of the country.”

“And keep her there!” Hector said, jabbing Charles in the arm. Charles gave a bitter smile, but it quickly faded. “What’s your deal, man?” Hector asked. “You been moody or some shit. You wanted to do this, right?”

Charles thought. Did he? This was Hector. One of his best friends.

But what was the alternative?

“Yeah,” Charles said. “We’re doing this.”

***

The street was quiet in front of the old underground mall. People frequented here and there, but Charles and Hector, for their purposes, were alone. The underground mall was connected to a closed subway platform, out of use for a long time. This is where they’d meet the buyer.

Hector looked down the stairwell, at two sides of a gate chained together.

“He’s down there?” Hector asked. Charles looked down, too.

“Yep,” Charles said.

“And how are we supposed to get through?”

Charles started walking down the steps. Hector watched from the top of the stairs as Charles neared the chained gate. When he reached out to touch the chains, they fell apart, falling to the ground. Charles pushed the gate, and it opened with a deafening creak.

“How’d you do that?”

“He told me it would,” Charles shouted up. Hector ran down the stairs behind him.

The old station was a cavern of graffiti. The only lighting came through vents and other scattered openings. Hector was usually one to talk—but he kept quiet.

As the two walked, they found a long platform, split by columns and monolithic trashcans. Charles felt the breeze swim down below through the vents, tickling his chin. When he looked over, he could only see Hector’s faint figure, but he heard a sharp pattern of breathing from Hector’s nostrils.

“Hector,” Charles said, “you okay?”

“What?” Hector said. Then: “Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“We can go home if you want,” Charles said. Even though he knew they truly couldn’t.

They were halfway across the platform. Almost to the mall.

“No. I want the money. We’re getting out, right?”

“Out of—”

“The Bronx.”

“Um… Yeah,” Charles said. “Don’t be nervous, okay? It’s gonna be fine.”

Hector turned his head in the dark. “Why’d you say that?”

“I don’t know,” Charles said. “Just a thing to say.”

When they reached the end of the corridor, they walked up a small set of stairs to find the abandoned mall. The shops were mostly lit by a series of orange emergency lights—except for a stall on the corner, adorned by a white spotlight.

Now it was Charles’ turn to shudder.

As Charles continued, he felt an emptiness next to him. He turned and saw Hector in place, face drawn towards the shuttered stall.

“What’s wrong?” Charles asked. He knew what was wrong.

“You met this guy before—”

“Yeah.”

“But,” and Hector emphatically pointed, “you met him here?”

Charles hadn’t. He’d met him elsewhere—he had dreams of white mountains. Somewhere far away. Struck him out of nowhere when he was walking down Broadway, after he’d gotten a text from Hector with a picture of his new Kiffs. He saw the stitching, the elegant laces, the tongue, the architectural vamp. Shoes he’d never have.

The thought came in a wave of bubbling ichor: I deserve them, too, don’t I?

Then the vision in the snow. It came to him quickly, shook him so hard he had to keep balance against the side of a building. He blinked, and he was surrounded in white. Nothing was there, yet Charles felt a revolting presence.

“I would like to compete,” said the voice, “for those shoes. I have a collection.”

Charles had no longer been on Broadway. He squinted into the emptiness beyond a bowl of silvery ridges. He couldn’t see who’d spoken.

“You need to arrange it,” the voice said.

Charles had wrapped himself in his arms to fight the shivering.

“I—I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Charles yelled out. “Where am I?”

“This is my home,” the voice said. It had sounded like a regular adult voice until now, when a subtle growl slipped into the conversation. “And it’s where I take the challengees.

“You will respect my wishes.”

Charles paused and looked around himself. Nothing but snow and rocks and mountains. When he turned again, it was a face lined in white fur and a toothy jaw covered in blood that greeted him.

You will respect my wishes.”

Then Charles was again with Hector in the underground mall.

“Not here, but—” Charles paused. “This is where he works.”

Hector tightened his grip on his bookbag straps.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

Charles heard the next instructions: open the stall door from the bottom right to unlodge the door—then enter.

Charles did so. Hector watched in awe from behind as Charles hulked the door open. What he revealed was a dark den with a barely visible counter topped with a cash register. Charles found the counter door and lifted up. He motioned to Hector, who came forward and went inside, peering at the rusty maw as he walked. Then Charles followed, letting the counter door fall.

The backroom of the stall wasn’t much bigger than the front, but the details hidden by shadows caused the backroom to stretch further than was possible. While Hector looked forward, scattered, Charles noticed on either wall a grid of cubbies, each with something inside. He stepped nearer to the closest cube and reached to what it held.

What he found was a pair of shoes, made of rugged, detailed leather.

“Charles, where is this guy?” Hector asked, turning in the dark. Charles pulled away from the shoes.

“He should be here,” Charles said, but he didn’t know, either. He’d only heard the instructions. He looked into the expanse—and felt a new chill.

Then, he heard a shift above. The screech of nails sinking into rusted metal. Charles looked up. Two large claws digging into the ledge. Behind them, a face he’d seen before. White fur. Impossibly large canines. Porcelain ape face. Bloody mouth.

Dripping red.

“Do you like my collection?” the thing said. Hector saw, and screamed. As he ran away to the entrance, Charles watching captive, unmoving—it began to snow.

Hector and Charles were then in the snowy place, lit with golden torches, revealing an auburn-and-yellow outdoor stadium of ornate stone columns and metallic statues.

“Charles,” Hector started. “Charles, you said—what the hell is going on?”

Charles didn’t answer.

“Did you do this?” Hector asked.

Charles turned only his eyes to Hector. He thought about why he’d done any of it in the first place. That dripping mouth—what would it have done if he’d said no, ignored the litany of instructions to make sure Hector followed through?

Or was it all over a pair of shoes?

“Thank you,” a growly voice said from beyond the snowy place, “for respecting my wishes.” Then the apish figure slowly trudged into the bounds of the stadium. Its white fur nearly blended with the icy crust of the ground. Its eyes gleamed in the torchlight. And for the first time, both Hector and Charles saw how big the shoe-collector was.

Hector trembled. Charles watched, and his stomach sunk. Hector was his friend, and he’d taken him here.

“Do you understand why you’re here? Have you ever met a wendigo?” it asked. “Most challengers don’t… and haven’t.”

Hector turned to Charles, but the wendigo raised its large hand and drew Hector’s face back to focus with a gentle claw on his cheek.

“It is only fair that I explain. I am challenging you for those shoes in your pack,” the wendigo said. “Others outside my sphere of power have—set stipulations that prevent me from what I want. So I am bound.”

Hector started crying. Charles wanted to look away, but he couldn’t. He thought about Hector’s mom, the folks that loved him, that would miss him.

“For what I want, I must win it in a challenge. And my favorite challenge is running. That is why I had your friend bring you here.”

“You knew,” Hector said.

“If you win,” the wendigo continued, “I am allowed to give you human treasures that you may exploit in any fashion desired.

“If I win,” it said, “I get your shoes—and you. As a trophy for my win.”

“You knew about this, Charles. How—”

“Put the shoes on,” the wendigo said, “and we’ll race.”

“I’m sorry, Hector—”

Hector ignored Charles. He lowered the backpack off his shoulders, took out the Kiffs, undid his sneakers, putting his sock-covered feet into the snow. The Kiffs were stark against the ice. Charles stared at them as Hector fitted them on his feet, tying the artisanal laces in a tight bow.

“Be gentle,” the wendigo said, lording over Hector. “Be gentle.”

Loud chimes sounded from the stadium. Charles and Hector had shifted to the start of the arena, transported by the wendigo. Hector gasped, finding his knees bent to begin the race, his hands on the ground. Next to him was the wendigo, in the same position, edging its claws into the imaginary start line.

“We start at the end of the count of three,” the wendigo said. “I wish you the best.

“Three.”

Hector turned to Charles on the sideline. Charles saw a look he’d never seen from Hector, who’d always been one to rag or joke. His eyes had blossomed white in their sockets. He sought something in Charles. His lips whispered something—

“Two.”

help me

“One—”

help me Charles

“I would like to take his place,” Charles said. His words stumbled as he said them.

Simple words, but they were effective, because he soon found himself in Hector’s shoes. His fingers could barely grip into the snow. His face was hot, his eyes watering. His knees wanted to break. Charles now saw Hector on the sideline, whose hands covered his mouth.

He turned to the wendigo, who smiled with its bloody mouth.

“I’m glad you’re racing. Regret does taste better than jealousy,” it said.

Then: “Go.”

As Charles ran, hearing the chimes of the stadium, watching the snow fall, understanding very quickly how the race would turn and where he would end up, he couldn’t drop the thought of how good the Kiffs felt on his feet. They really were well-made.

 

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Thanks for reading!

Narrated by Cody Jaey. Music by /grōn/.

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