It came as no surprise to Tom Miller that the last hotel room he would ever stay in looked like this. A rectangle of grimy, featureless concrete contained a lumpy bed with linen the color of the walls. Beside it stood a folding metal chair with a bent leg and a dent in the seat. There was no other furniture.
On one wall were a chipped sink and a dusty mirror. Next to them stood the toilet, built unusually low to the floor and without a seat. He guessed that he was supposed to squat over it. There was no partition for this crude bathroom, not even a curtain, but that didn’t matter. He was alone.
The view almost made up for the room. Opening a pair of shutters on their groaning hinges, faded green paint flecking off on his hands, he looked out over the Petit Socco of Tangier.
It was an oblong plaza no bigger than a football field, and yet it seemed to contain the whole world. People rushed by, appearing out of or disappearing into the half-dozen streets and alleys that fed into the plaza. Many looked like the Moroccans he was familiar with from his time in Spain—the men dressed in jeans and black leather jackets, the women in slacks and loose shirts, sometimes with a headscarf. Others dressed more traditionally. Men, mostly older, walked by wearing heavy brown djellabas despite the heat, and a few women wore a black niqab to cover their faces. Children darted amid the rushing crowd, which occasionally parted for a honking motorcycle or a three-wheeled motorcart carrying produce or lumber or, in one case, a stout old woman wearing a loose gray robe with a scarf over her hair and a white cloth stretched tightly over the bottom half of her face.
Surrounding this frantic motion were four different cafés, where Moroccan men and a scattering of tourists sat watching the passing scene. Their languid conversations, which rose to his window in a babble of Arabic, French, Spanish, and braying English, got nearly drowned out by the raucous, tramping crowd.
Compared to the rush, these café loungers seemed all but immobile. They sat, talked almost without moving their heads or hands, and occasionally took a sip from their coffee or mint tea.
While his pension appeared to be in the worst building in the Petit Socco, the others looked a bit ragged too. All were whitewashed but showed patches of bare concrete from where the paint had flecked off. Across the street stood two old colonial-style facades with pillars and cornices painted a pale yellow that shone almost painfully bright in the June sun. He could just peek over the lower rooftops to his left and right and see a vista of flat-roofed buildings, all whitewashed and topped by skewed TV antennas and rusty satellite dishes.
The ground floors of every building were taken up by businesses. Just below him was a café. He could look down on the peaked hoods of djellabas, the white ovals of baseball caps, and the black hair of those who realized that when you were sitting in the shade and it was still 90 degrees, it might be a good idea to uncover your head. Across the street in the ground floor of the colonial buildings he saw a large shop filled with tourist trinkets, a stall selling candy and ice cream, and a leatherworker’s shop.
Beside these was a little hole-in-the-wall with a counter of white tile and a rack of rotisserie chicken turning behind it. A sign proudly proclaimed this was the “Ray Charley Restaurant”. Next to this was a crude painting that may or may not have been of Charlie Chaplin. It didn’t look like Ray Charles, in any case. Perhaps it looked like Ray Charley.
Tom leaned out the window and craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the Strait of Gibraltar glittering in the distance. Tangier was in the way, though, and he could not see it.
Leaving the window open to let in the bright Moroccan light, warm and strong on the first day of summer, Tom went to his backpack where it leaned against the bed. He opened the clips and drawstring and paused. There was nowhere to put anything. A dead cockroach lay on its back in a corner with its legs curled as if it were trying to grab hold of the air.
He sat down at the edge of the bed. Well, it only cost fifty dirhams a night. Five dollars. If he spent the same on food every day he’d have about two weeks.
A grumbling stomach reminded him that he had skipped breakfast. His flight from Madrid had been too early for him to grab something and he’d cleaned out his fridge the night before. Already thinking about his thin wallet, he had decided against a final breakfast in his favorite barrio café. Back when he had a job he had gone there three or four times a week. No more.
He had to eat, though. It was past lunchtime. He got up, fiddled with the lock on his door and finally got it to shut, and headed down the dreary concrete hallway leading to the entrance. The hallway smelled of mold and dust.
The guy behind the counter, a young guy named Ahmed who spoke passable Spanish and a bit of English, nodded and gave him the same look of mingled curiosity and suspicion that he’d given him when he checked in. A narrow flight of dingy steps took him down to the street. Rounding a corner took him to the café that made up the ground floor of his hotel.
He sat at one of the outside tables, most of which were taken up by individuals or small groups, all men except for a pair of nervous French women who looked relieved when the waiter started speaking to them in fluent French.
The waiter came over to him and he ordered in Spanish, which the waiter turned out to speak just as well as his French. Tom smiled. He’d heard that Spanish was more common here than English and ever since he’d gotten off the plane he’d been using it—with the bus driver, the suspicious hotel guy, and now the waiter. French was apparently more common than Spanish, but he didn’t know French. The guy at the next table was reading a Moroccan newspaper in French. Tangier looked just as cosmopolitan as London or Madrid.
He settled in to the wicker chair and watched the crowd go by. He found it endlessly fascinating and regretted that he would have so little time to explore this place. He shook his head to exorcize the thought. Live while you can.
The tea came in a tall glass filled with piping hot water made cloudy by heaps of sugar. Mint leaves floated in the haze. He tried to bring the glass to his lips and had to put it down immediately to avoid scalding his fingers. Fine. This is a place to take your time.
But you don’t have time.
His eyes were drawn to the crowd once again. Arabs, Berbers, black Africans, Europeans. Everyone’s paths intersecting and narrowly missing each other like a swarm of dancing meteors. A family passed by, the man tall, swaggering, the woman smiling, walking close by his side as their three children laughed and danced around them. They passed an old man hobbling the other direction, his beard as white as his djellaba. The tap of his cane on the flagstones rang through the plaza.
A little girl in a bright orange t-shirt and matching slacks passed by his view, her flip flops slapping across the Petit Socco. She walked with a determination only seen in children heading to the sweet shop. Sure enough, she stopped at the one across the way, where she peered through the glass top of the ice cream fridge.
Her eyes spotted something and lit up. Then she glanced at the price list. A moment’s disbelief, then her face seemed to disintegrate. Her sadness was so complete, so encompassing, that he wanted to rush over and buy the ice cream for her.
But little girls don’t accept candy from strange men. Not here, not anywhere. So he watched, helpless, as she counted the coins in her hands even though she already knew precisely how much she had—any nine-year-old had a better handle on their finances than he ever did—and came to the inevitable conclusion.
Defeat was total. She walked away quickly, as if to rid herself of the sight of that garish blue-and-white sign with its rainbow of cones and bars, but she couldn’t help but give a couple of forlorn looks over her shoulder as she left.
“Sorry, kid. I know how you feel.”
Tom picked up his tea and gingerly took a sip. It had cooled just enough and tasted deliciously sweet and minty. Yeah, he could get used to this.
He looked off to his left again, towards the seaside blocked from view. A nice looking French bistro stood at the far end of the Socco. The menu hanging on the wall outside told him he couldn’t afford to eat there.
Attached to the wall next to the menu was a little yellow postbox. He stared at it for some time before forcing himself to look away. The French women laughed and took pictures of each other. Next to them three middle-aged Moroccan men engaged in an animated conversation in rapid-fire Arabic, simultaneously grating and mellifluous.
A long wailing song echoed through the city, broadcast by a tinny loudspeaker. The muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. He’d never heard it before except in movies. Unlike the old men gabbling at each other in their grunting dialect, this kind of Arabic was pure beauty. He wished they’d shut up so he could hear it better, but nobody seemed to be paying much attention. Well, maybe those two guys in long robes hurrying along. Both had long beards but no moustache, their heads covered with white skullcaps. He followed them with his eyes and saw them turn a corner. He’d have to go that way sometime and see where the mosque was. It would be a fine thing to try drawing.
He took another sip of his mint tea and relaxed into his chair. He liked the café scene here. It reminded him of Madrid, where you could nurse a drink for an hour. The waiters wanted you there to fill up the place, make it look busy, and everybody understood that going slow was the whole point of a café.
Tom looked down at his empty glass and bit his lower lip. He’d been nursing this one long enough. He was only delaying what he had to do.
A look at the waiter brought him over.
“How much for the tea?” he asked in Spanish.
A dollar. Less than a euro. Good.
He paid and studied the map in his guidebook. He found the Petit Socco and traced a route through the tangle of streets to a seaside walk that would take him to Al Hafa, an old Roman graveyard on a cliff overlooking the strait.
Heading out, he immediately got lost. Streets zigzagged every which way, dead ending or doubling back on themselves so he’d end up where he had passed five minutes before. Eventually he got on a wider road that ascended a slope leading to the Casbah, the sultan’s old fortified palace.
The road hugged the hillside, curving in a gentle arc, sometimes hemmed in by whitewashed houses, sometimes opening up to a sweeping view of the Strait of Gibraltar. Sun warmed his face and sea air cooled it.
Three little girls played in the street ahead. One, a pudgy kid of about ten with a sky blue dress and a thick, frizzy pony tail that threatened to burst from the elastic band holding it in, shook his finger at him.
“No no! No no!”
He stopped and smiled. “No no?”
She pointed to the ground. He was standing in their hopscotch game, scrawled faintly on the pavement with chalk.
“Excuse me, madame,” he said with exaggerated courtesy and stepped around it.
After he’d walked a few more steps down the road the girl caught up with him. She held up a French workbook with a picture of a happy turtle on the cover saying “Bon mots.”
“Parlez-vous francais? Bon mots?” she asked.
“Sorry, kid. You learning English too?¿Hablas español?”
“Non. Au revoir,” she said and skipped off.
Not much further along, he passed a group of boys chasing each other and laughing. A lot of kids out for a Friday afternoon. Don’t they go to school, or do they get the day off? He remembered reading somewhere that Friday was a holy day. Maybe they looked at it as a free day like Sundays used to be for him before his career and marriage took over everything.
A little boy ran down the hill twirling a cassette over his head by the tape like a cowboy about to lasso a steer. The tape played out behind him, a thin brown line catching the sun along a few feet of its length where a side passage let the light in.
The alley forked and without really thinking he chose the way marked by the tape, although he was pretty sure the other one led more directly along the coastline.
The tape led him up a hill, around a corner where a cobbler bent his wrinkled face and calm, weary eyes over a shoe as he knocked on a new sole with a little hammer, through a small courtyard where half a dozen boys played a raucous game of football, then up another alley.
He’d been steadily climbing for some time when the tape joined two power cables that ran along the ground from somewhere to somewhere. He heard but did not see an electric saw buzzing away at a piece of wood. Man, how do these people find their way around here? The tape played out, the power cables turned a corner, and Tom turned the other way hoping the new alley would lead him past the Casbah and onto the cliff.
It didn’t. Instead it stopped at a dead end. Shaking his head, he retraced his steps and tried another alley. Funny he should be impatient about this, of all things. He’d always been known for his patience, a virtue he had secretly grown to think of as his biggest fault.
The path opened up into a broad street flanked by shops. Everyone walked on the street because the sidewalks were filled with vendors selling everything from socks to juice machines. Cars nudged forward at walking pace, the crowd leisurely parting for them.
The street inclined up a steep hill. He knew the Casbah stood on the highest point of the city so he took this as a good sign. Passing sweet shops and a dark café where men sat smoking long, straight wooden pipes and watched an African League football match, he huffed up the hill until the wide, arched Casbah gate came into view on his right, flanked by battlements and guarded by a pair of rusting cannon. Instead of entering, he took the road that continued past the gate. It leveled out, paralleling the sea, which he glimpsed between large whitewashed private homes, each with its garden and ironwork fence.
The properties spread out, grew bigger. Gardens shaded with bougainvillea. Whitewashed mansions gleaming in the sun, their latticework windows hiding dark interiors. He passed a hospital, a language institute, a couple of high-end hotels, and a hand-painted sign reading “To Al Hafa”.
His guidebook told him this had been a Roman graveyard. How appropriate. At a rusty blue gate, a sign in English told him that he stood on the plateau of Marshan, and that the graves marked the western edge of the ancient city. The oldest ones dated to Carthaginian times but when the Romans arrived they cleaned them out and reused them. He snorted. No one ever got any peace for long. There were a total of 98 graves and the latest ones were from three centuries after the Romans showed up. He wondered where they put all the other dead people.
He passed through the gate. There was no one selling tickets. The earth with its snaggly grass gave way to bedrock that sloped down smooth like the bald forehead of some aging giant before dropping off sheer. He looked out over a vast arc of glittering sea. To his left stretched the Atlantic, to the right the Mediterranean. Spain and Gibraltar were clearly visible and far closer than he’d imagined. He could even make out the thin vertical lines of a wind farm atop a distant ridge.
Scattered about the bedrock were rectangular holes cut into the stone. He wandered among them while out to sea container ships moved between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. One grave the size of a child stopped him. He looked at it a moment and then took five steps over to another grave that would fit him. Its bottom was half filled with trash blown here by the wind—a carton of fruit juice, several plastic bags, a McDonalds wrapper. The morbid thought came to him that he could lie down in the grave as if trying it on for size, but the trash stopped him. He looked out to sea, picking out the distant buildings back in Europe shining white in the sun.
An old man in a brown djellaba hobbled up the hill, his face obscured under the pointed peak of his hood. He could tell the man was old only by the way he moved, stiff and slow, yet sure, one foot after another as he ascended the smooth, steep slope of bare stone, rising up over the lip of the slope and silhouetted by the water like some pagan sea god. The heavy material of his cloak hung loosely on his body, the only parts of him visible a pair of broad, wrinkled hands and his gnarled feet shod in a pair of cracked leather sandals.
Tom turned from the old man and moved to his right, where he could see that after a few yards the promontory ended. Beyond, across a long stretch of empty space, a shantytown clung to a scrubby hillside.
Coming to the edge of the cliff, he looked down. The drop was about 150 feet and ended in jagged rocks and heaps of trash. A scrawny dog picked among the refuse. He grimaced. Maybe he should throw himself into the water; it would be cleaner. The Strait must have strong currents with just that narrow stretch connecting a large sea and a gigantic ocean. He’d always been a good swimmer but that didn’t matter if he resisted the urge to swim.
He looked away. Even without swimming it would be too slow. No, it had to be quick. He wasn’t afraid of chickening out but he didn’t want to suffer. There had been enough suffering already. He’d take the cliff. Feeling satisfied he’d come to a decision, Tom headed back towards town. The sugary tea that had staved off his hunger now made him hungrier than before, the sugar high giving him an edgy impatience. A good meal would make him feel better. The cliff could wait until his money ran out.
He found a more direct way from the Casbah back down to the medina, the old city, along the wide, straight road descending a steep hill. He recognized it as the street that he had finally found on his zigzag journey up here. It was lined with clothing stores and shops selling sweets. Beyond them to his left the walls of the Casbah glowed red in the twilight.
About halfway down the hill the buildings to one side opened up into a parking lot cut as a terrace into the hillside. Three young guys lounged at the entrance next to a cardboard box covered in cigarette packs and rolling papers. Two mason jars stood in front of this roadside shop, one containing a red rose and the other a white rose.
One of the guys called out in a low voice, “Hello, smoking? Hashish. Good. Strong. Moroccan.”
He stopped. Why not? Strolled over.
“How much are the rolling papers?” he asked.
“Ten dirham. You want hashish?”
The guy talking had risen to meet him as his friends remained in the background—younger, bigger, and better dressed with brand new jeans and leather jackets. The talker wore a shabby old Army coat, and had a shaved head and deep acne scars. His eyes were sharp and cunning, reflecting the early evening streetlight with a confident glitter.
In the crime novels Tom liked to read, the low-class criminals always had “rat-like” eyes or the “face of a rat”. Now Tom could see what the novelists meant. This guy’s eyes were black, liquid, beady, and had a penetrating stare that somehow never quite met his own. His narrow face reminded him of a rat too. He could almost see whiskers.
“No, I got what I need right now,” Tom told Rat Eyes, testing. He’d heard that a lot of street dealers were extortion artists. Make a buy and a cop appears. Shakedown time. Funny he should worry about stuff like this now, but he wanted to end his days living the way he chose, and that didn’t mean being stuck in a Moroccan prison cell or getting beaten up by some Moroccan drug dealers when they discovered he had nothing to extort.
“Oh if you need something no problem. Much hash. Heroin. Cocaine.Muy fuerte in Morocco. Boom,” The dealer said, punching the air.
“Sit,” one of the heavies said with a smile that almost looked convincing. He gestured to a green plastic stool.
“Youaméricain?” Rat Eyes asked, the word coming out in French.
“Américain great people, but law too hard. Here all cool. See cops here?”
“Actually not many. I’m surprised. In Spain cops were everywhere but did nothing.”
“You lived in Spain?” the dealer asked in Spanish.
“Yeah! For some months,” Tom replied in Spanish. “We can speak in Spanish if you want. That better for you?”
“Sure. I lived in Barcelona. You can smoke a joint on the street and nobody cares.”
Rat Eyes’ Spanish was almost perfect. They decided to stick with Spanish.
“Yeah, the cops seem to only go after hardcore criminals and terrorists,” Tom said. “They have no real power over regular people. Not like the cops here.”
“Don’t worry about the cops here, chico. Tangier is very tranquil.”
Rat Eyes reached into his pocket and pulled out a ball of hash.
“Want to smoke now?”
“Thanks man, but I’m a foreigner. It’s dangerous. Everyone will be looking.”
As if on cue, a family passed by. The plump mother squawked at her small son, who was just passing between them. Rat Eyes smiled.
“OK, muchacho, we won’t smoke. But chill, no problem here. You want to buy hash? Very strong. Pure. Not like what they send to Spain.”
He relented. “You have kief?”
He’d been wanting to try that for a while now. Kief is the sifted ends of marijuana bud, where all the crystals congregate. Mixed with tobacco, it’s the traditional smoke in Morocco. A Youtube documentary he’d seen called Strainhunters had said it gave a clear-headed, mild high. That’s what he wanted. Not the drowsy escape of hash. He’d been sleeping for too damn long already.
“Yeah, we got kief, man. Packs are fifty dirham. You want one or two?”
“One. I’m here with friends for two weeks. If we like it we’ll come back for more.”
Tom felt bitter at the lie. He had no friends here, and two weeks was optimistic.
One of the heavies made a call on his iPhone.
“No problem, man. We’re always here,” Rat Eyes said.
Suddenly he got nervous. He’d just committed to a deal. That’s all the Moroccan police needed. He glanced around the street. An old man stopped to buy cigarettes and chatted with Rat Eyes in Arabic. Rat Eyes gave him the white rose and he left. A woman came in a dirty djellaba, bought a single cigarette from an open pack. For the tobacco, he realized. Rat Eyes gave her a bunch of papers from one of the packs sitting on his little cardboard shop counter. Tom wondered how many papers were left in the pack he’d bought. Rat Eyes leaned down, pulled the red rose out of the mason jar, and gave it to him.
“Um, thanks,” Tom said, amused. He’d never gotten a rose from a dealer before.
The heavy came back with a ball of something wrapped in the white plastic of a supermarket bag. Tom smelled it. Ganja and tobacco mixed. He paid Rat Eyes.
“Come back soon, compañero.”
Back in his room, Tom sat on the end of his lumpy bed and opened the package. The kief was a green and silver powder that had a metallic sheen in the light of the bare bulb. Inside the package was a second, smaller package of tobacco—moist, funky smelling stuff that reminded him of horse manure. He’d never liked tobacco, and had always mixed his hash with bud to the astonishment of his Spanish friends. Tobacco made him queasy and lightheaded.
Setting it aside, he pulled out his other purchase of the evening—a long, straight pipe with a tiny ceramic bowl called a sebsi that he had bought just down the street from Rat Eyes. This was the same kind of pipe he’d seen Moroccan men smoking in cafés. The pipe had cost as much as one night in his hotel, but he tried not to think about that. He tried not to think about anything.
Tom dipped the sebsi in the mound of kief and came out with a full bowl. Turned off the light and opened a window. Few lights and fewer people in the Petit Socco at this hour. The whitewashed buildings shone pale and bonelike in the light of a nearly full moon, their daytime grime seemingly washed away.
It only took two tokes to empty the bowl. The drug wafted through his body like a relaxing breeze. His head grew light and his muscles soft.
It was getting late. He could hear the rattle of shutters all over the medina as shopkeepers closed for the day and went home. The Petit Socco, however, still had life. Ray Charley’s was full, the stools filled by a line of anonymous backs. Through dingy café windows he could see Moroccan men smoking kief pipes like him. He felt tempted to go down and join them, but feared what the cops might say. He needed to figure out the rules to this place first.
He refilled his sebsi again and again as the shops all closed and the cafés gradually emptied. In the black rectangle of the moonlit building he was invisible, coming into being only for a moment in the flare of a lighter, face coppery in the flame before fading away and leaving only a pinpoint of light at the end of the sebsi that flared and dimmed, flared and dimmed.
The next morning he had a mint tea and a pastry at the café for breakfast, carrying a bag containing his sketch pad and pencils. The sun was shining, a cool sea breeze was blowing in from the Atlantic, and he was going to draw Tangier.
First he lounged at the café. An American couple wandered past, the mother holding the hand of a fat kid wearing a fez. Over at Ray Charley’s, a cat sat as motionless as an Egyptian statue, staring at the chicken turning on the spit. One of the cooks hustling behind the counter glanced over at it, grabbed a hunk of hamburger and made eye contact with the cat. He flicked his hand forward, pretending to throw it. The cat flinched just like a dog. Another psych out, another flinch, and then the guy relented with a smile. The hamburger landed on the pavement with a splat and the cat had a feast.
A boy in his early teens passed amid the tables holding up packets of Kleenex. He called the kid over.
“Kam?” he asked. “How much?”
The boy held up two fingers.
“Ithnaan.” Tom said and the kid smiled.
Tom smiled back, proud that he’d said something in Arabic. A Moroccan acquaintance back in Madrid had taught him a few words. Two dirhams was too much for a little packet of tissue but what the hell, consider it a language lesson. He bought one and was treated to a broad grin. Tom smiled back and held out his hand, palm up.
The kid looked at him, confused, so Tom slapped his own hand. Understanding and another smile dawned on the boy’s face. Tom held out his hand again and the kid slapped him five. He turned his hand over and the kid put his hand low and he returned the slap. Tom made a fist. The kid looked confused again but followed suit. Dap. A bigger grin this time. The boy walked off, gave a shy smile and wave over his shoulder, and continued his rounds among the tables.
Tom headed into labyrinthine alleys of the medina, carrying with him a large sketch pad and a collection of pens and colored pencils. As a kid he had obsessed over drawings like other kids obsessed over Nintendo, creating portraits of his family or long, involved comic strips in which he and his friends were the heroes of countless adventures in the Wild West or outer space. His parents encouraged him and his skill grew and he became the darling of his high school art teacher.
As senior year started, he talked of studying art in college and his teacher made up a list of scholarships he could apply for. His parents stopped being encouraging. One night his father sat him down and gave one of his father-son talks, which always involved his father talking and him listening.
“You’ve been getting good grades. You’re a smart young man and I’m proud of you. We’re all proud of you. With your brains and a lot of hard work you can make your mark on this world. But you have to be practical. Nobody makes a living as an artist. Pick something else, business maybe. Or how about computers? Your generation is obsessed with them and the damn things are taking over the world anyway. Pick whatever you want, just not art. You’ll end up broke and living alone in some crappy room somewhere.”
When he had objected that he loved to draw, that he might get a scholarship, that he had won that award in his junior year and even got in the newspaper, and that his family had always said great things about his artwork, his father shook his head sadly and said, “We were just being nice, kid. Encouraging you. It made you happy so why not? But now you’re growing up and you have to get realistic. You don’t have any talent. Wait, hear me out. Sure, you’re good. You can probably get a scholarship to some second-tier school and have a great four years and then what? It’s not like you’re going to get into the Sorbonne. You’re not going to be the next big thing. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment. You’re good for your age but there’s nothing there. Sure, you’re the best in your class but so what? If you go to art school you’ll be with the best of the best, and they’ll bury you. There will be people from all over the country, people with talent and connections. You wouldn’t stand a chance. Oh, now don’t be a wimp! No, don’t try to hide it. I see your eyes brimming over. I’m trying to help you. It’s a nice hobby. Keep doing it if you want to but find a career that will make some money. Make your little drawings in your spare time, just don’t get the idea that you’re the next Vincent Van Gogh.”
The relentless roll of logical words ground him down, numbed him until he could think of nothing to say in his defense. Later, when he replayed the conversation in his mind and created better endings for it, he would have said what his teacher told him, that talent had to be developed. Or he could have cut back with the question of how this tired, aging man who trudged home every night from a job he hated to slouch comatose in front of the TV could know so much about the right path in life.
For days, weeks, years afterwards he thought of replies, replaying the scene in his head countless times and always emerging the winner. In reality he never said anything. He just swallowed the acid in his throat and let it burn through his chest, hollowing him out.