The city streets were dirty and the heat of the sun made a garbage odor linger in the air. By the ocean you could catch a breath, but downtown the smog didn’t help either. I stood there in the streets contemplating the meaning of not only life but existence in general, not expecting much. It was your average day with nothing out of the ordinary or so it seemed. For a moment I felt as if I was alone in the whole universe; my hands were in my jacket pockets, the wind blew through my hair, and everyone around me momentarily disappeared leaving me with nothing more than the present moment. There was so much life around me but everything momentarily eluded me.
“It smells bad doesn’t it?” the voice of a little girl said from behind me.
Reality quickly came back to me as I was startled by the sweet high pitched voice. I turned around instantaneously, a movement that is involuntary for most people even though someone tells you not to look but you do anyway. Behind me there was a chubby little girl with a big smile on her face. My first impression of her was that she didn’t have a care in the world but I knew too well that the first – and second, and third – impression was only what met the eye, there was always so much more beneath the surface, hidden and locked away behind closed doors. The little girl looked like she was about seven or eight years old, maybe a little more and maybe a little less, brown hair cut into a bob and dark chocolatey brown eyes that contrasted against her pale skin. Her full cheeks gave her the appearance of a cupid and a reassuring and calming demeanor. The true picture of innocence and an uncorrupted heart.
“Indeed it smells terrible out here today,” I replied neutrally.
“What’s your name?” the little girl asked me enthusiastically, “I’m Jade Grace, or just Jade for short, I’m not a big fan of Grace anyway.”
“The pleasure is mine Jade, my name is Jasenko.”
“What? Come again? I’m not gonna remember that you know.”
“People call me Jason to keep things simple, since nobody can get the pronunciation or the spelling quite right.”
“Ugh, my stepfather’s name is Jason, we’ll have to find you another name. But right now I’d like to go hang out by the ocean because it stinks too much here.”
I grinned at the little girl who decided to start walking towards the nearest bus stop and then turned around as if she expected me to follow her. When I hesitated too long she put her arms up in the air and shrugged with a so-are-you-coming-or-not look on her face. I had to oblige.
“You just want to me to get you on the bus don’t ya?” I teased her as I caught up to her.
“For your information, Jack Sauce or whatever your name is, it’s free for kids under ten,” she fired back playfully.
“When they are accompanied by an adult,” I muttered, “and my name is Jasenko.”
“You’re an adult,” she replied affirmatively with a crooked grin on her adorable face.
That’s when I knew that I wasn’t going to win so I gave her an affirmative nod with my head and when I did so she jumped of joy and hugged my waist. She looked as if she might’ve been eight or nine years old but with maturity far beyond her years. Where were her parents? If I had a child her age I wouldn’t be letting them wander out on the streets all by themselves.
“Do your parents know you trick strangers into letting you ride around the city for free?” I asked her as we saw the bus coming down the street.
“First of all, I didn’t trick you,” she told me as she stared at me with her big eyes, “and my parents couldn’t care less, so let’s get out of here shall we? It smells so bad that I want to puke!”
The bus pulled up right in front of us so I made no further comments until we were seated onboard. I paid for my fare and told the driver that Jade was with me but she already seemed to know that. Jade was probably a regular on the city buses because she knew exactly what she was doing. The two of us sat in the mid-section next to one another and looked outside and the beautiful day that was just beginning out there.
“So, Jack Sauce, what are you exactly?” Jade quizzed as she put her little hand over mine, “You seem to be pretty exotic.”
“My mom was Croatian and my dad was Armenian,” I replied sweetly.
“Yup, you’re exotic,” she spoke in an upbeat affirmative voice, “like Kim Kardashian.”
“Do you like exotic?”
“Yes! You have nice skin like a clay sculpture and Americans are boring anyway.”
“I prefer America over my homeland, I’m more into boring than into war.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m blessed to have been born in this land but I’m one of those people who wander who really are lost.”
“How can you be lost? You’re still so young!”
Jade shrugged, not having an answer to my question. There was indeed an epidemic of hopelessness even in the land where all dreams can come true. At least they make you believe that America can make all of your dreams come true until you grow up and realize that it was nothing but make-believe and if you really want something you’ll have to get it for yourself.
“You look deep in thought Jack Sauce,” Jade interrupted my train of thought, “and I don’t like calling you Jack Sauce, I need to find you a new name and not Jason.”
“Why do you dislike your stepfather so much hon?” I asked her in a serious tone of voice.
“Some of the most poisonous people you will ever meet are disguised as family,” she muttered in an equally serious tone of voice.
“Touché,” I replied as I squeezed her little hand in mine to comfort her.
She then got off her seat next to me and climbed onto my lap. She let her head rest on my shoulder and looked outside as the buildings went flying by. It was a rowdy day in Mapleford near the shipyard because the trial of the century was underway at the courthouse nearby. News crews, protesters, supporters, tourists, fangirls and the general public all filled up the usually peaceful streets. I loved sitting near the harbor and watching the boats go by with another section of the city in the backdrop. It was a beautiful area of town with few disturbances considering the constant hustle and bustle of city life. Jade could see the ocean and get away from the stench of garbage in the dirtier neighborhoods of an otherwise spectacular city. Jade hugged my neck as the bus slowed down in the clogged up streets.
“I pray he doesn’t get the death penalty,” Jade whispered softly to me as people lined up the side of the street holding up signs to have mercy and execute justice instead of people.
“He’ll get what he deserves,” I muttered as I stared out the window of the moving bus.
Jade looked up at me with her chocolatey brown eyes seemingly begging for mercy. I wished I could’ve given her what she wanted but it was beyond me at that point. I could not possibly imagine even showing a single shred of leniency to someone who had done such harm to so many people, but Jade did not share that opinion.
“I wonder if he’s as good-looking in person as he was on the cover of the town newspaper,” the youngster sitting on my lap contemplated as we passed the courthouse. I didn’t respond, I simply kept looking outside the window.
“You sorta look like him in a way,” she went on playfully, “your black hair sticking out of everywhere and all.”
“I’m exotic,” I teased her, “like Kim Kardashian.”
Jade bursted into a frenzy of giggles and put her arms around my neck again. Passed the courthouse there was a bus stop near a park by the waterfront that was usually quiet and peaceful but had since become an area of commotion and protest. That didn’t bother Jade though. Nothing was going to stop her from her boardwalk stroll to get away from the smell of the other end of the city. The bus came to a halt and the two of us were the only ones to get off at that particular stop. The freshness that came with inhaling the mist of the salty water was like breathing for the first time. The skies had become partly sunny and partly clouded over which controlled the humidity and the smell. Jade began strolling around the shores joyfully and throwing her arms up in the air and letting the wind blow through her dark hair.
“Come on Matteo!” she yelled out when I was taking too long to catch up to her, “You’re so darn slow!”
“What did you just call me?!” I muttered out in both surprise and shock.
Matteo. Matteo Torres. Just like the killer.
“Jack Sauce,” she teased.
Once again I had to oblige. A few people sat at tables near the water casually eating and watching the boats and the airplanes. Jade looked as she walked passed them but didn’t stop. By the time I caught up to her she was already sitting down by the water in a secluded spot away from the wind that she had probably picked out for herself a long time ago. She signaled me with her hand to sit down next to her. I did and she let her head rest against my arm. She appeared to be deep in thought as she looked into the distance and at things that I probably couldn’t see. Between the roaring engines all around us I could hear from yelling in the distance but I couldn’t’ve cared less what all the commotion was about I was in a happy place.
“Do you come here often?” I asked Jade after a moment of silence between us, “This part of the city is usually the one I avoid because it’s so expensive.”
“I used to,” she replied, not giving the question much consideration, “my travel buddy died a little while ago and I have yet to find another suitable companion. She was 87 years old you know. She just stopped coming one day and then I saw her obituary in the Mapleford Observatory about a week later. I couldn’t read it but I recognized her picture when I was searching for the caricatures section.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said in a soft tone of voice.
“Thanks. I’ve been searching for someone else ever since but most people don’t like this deal. A few threatened to bring me to the police and in turn I threatened to get them put in jail,” Jade replied trying not to laugh, “so you better not look down on me as some sorry and unwanted child.”
“I won’t, I promise, but I have to ask, don’t you go to school or have parents that look out for you?”
“That house is not a home and I’d rather not be in it. It corrupts my soul anyway. My mom isn’t just some abused housewife either, she beats Jason up just as much as he beats her.”
“Do they beat you too?”
“Sometimes. Don’t tell the police, it’ll just make everything so much worst. Right now everything is working fine.”
“Don’t you worry hon, I’m not going to force you to send me to prison. I don’t want to go there.”
Jade giggled as she looked up at me. Her story reminded me so much of my own. I was the kid of poor immigrants who had failed to find the American dream. My mother was in a long-term care facility and didn’t even know who I was whereas my father had been deported and I had no clue what had happened to him after that.
“I have six siblings and step-siblings in total but most are in foster care,” Jade went on, “I hear it’s terrible. More terrible than deadbeat parents. They wouldn’t let me travel or even hang out. I know, I know, good parents don’t let kids like me do these things but despite everything it works. My life works, and I don’t want anyone screwing that up. I live my life the way I want and choose.”
The two of us locked eyes for a moment before she turned away and looked at the boats and airplanes in the distance again. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder to comfort her. Obviously her living situation greatly pained her but she was afraid that changing it would only make it worst. I had also been taught that if something works fine the way it is, don’t do anything to mess that up.
“I’ve got a few coins left, do you want to go somewhere for some food?” I asked Jade after yet another extended moment of silence between us.
“Sure,” she replied sweetly, “but are you implying that you’re poor or homeless?”
“I guess I am. I hop around from place to place.”
“Then I guess I’m homeless too. Except that I have a real room in a real house. Last night I put some scented nail polish on my feet, do you wanna smell my toes?”
* * *
The sun went down over the city as pizza was being ripped to shreds in between my teeth. Jade, on the other hand, carefully took off all the mushrooms without disturbing anything else that was on her slice. My piece of pizza was long gone by the time she took a careful first bite out of hers. Delight swept over her little round face when no mushrooms were detected on her tongue. The crust was the only thing left when she was finally done her piece, nearly an hour after I had swallowed mine. It had been quite a long and tiring, be it fun, day and Jade was visibly tired. A full stomach only made her want to doze off even more.
“Where are you staying tonight?” Jade asked me in a concerned tone of voice.
“The truth is I don’t really know,” I replied in a low voice.
“Do you want to go to the shelter with me?”
“Why would you want to go to the shelter when you have your own room to sleep in?”
“Because Jason is going to come home drunk and super belligerent and nobody seems to be willing to do jack shit about it and it’s easier to just stay away, you feel me?”
“I know hon, my grandfather was an alcoholic. My dad spent most of his life trying to help him but you can’t help those who don’t want to be helped.”
“I’m sorry to hear that your family life is super crappy too.”
“Don’t worry about that Jade, I’m still vertical. Just focus on you.”
The two of us left the restaurant and as we walked down the street Jade put her little cold hand in mine. I affectionately looked down at her and she smiled at me softly. As we approached the bus stop I saw a bunch of people gathered outside the homeless shelter on the corner a few blocks down before the doors opened.
“Maybe it would be best if we didn’t go there,” Jade commented as her pace slowed down before going to sit on a nearby bench.
Unfortunately much of the regular homeless population stayed out of the conventional homeless shelters because such places were filled with junkies and other types of people that society had puked up and rejected. Being around them wasn’t pleasant, and it was probably best policy to stay away. Much like Jade’s perception of her stepfather, nobody who had the power to change something seemed to want to and hence walking the other way was the best thing to do for us.
“I really don’t want to go home,” Jade muttered in an exasperated tone of voice.
“Do you have anywhere else to go?” I asked her, trying to cheer her up, “like a friend’s place maybe?”
She was deep in thought for a moment, looking at the sunset between the tall buildings. The airplanes flew over us with a deafening roar and ascended high into the multicolored sky until they were out of sight.
“If I go home,” Jade spoke slowly, “you have to promise me that we’ll hang out again tomorrow.”
“You have my word little girl,” I reassured her in a soft tone of voice as I moved her hair out of her face with my hand.
“Matteo Jack Sauce,” she muttered in a menacing tone, “you better meet me at the corner of Bolton and Dorchester tomorrow morning for breakfast or else I will cry blood and eat your soul. Understand me?!”
I nodded affirmatively in silence. A big grin appeared on her face and she hugged me. She grabbed a strand of my overgrown hair and let it slip through the fingers of her little hand.
“Your hair isn’t as soft as I imagined it would be,” she said nonchalantly.
“Bring me some of your Barbie shampoo tomorrow,” I challenged, making her gin again.
“You’ll look so hot people will have to call the fire department,” she laughed, “well, there’s still plenty of time to kill before we call it a night so what do you want to do?”
“It’s getting pretty late for someone so young, are you sure you don’t want to get on your way home? By the time you arrive it’ll be pitch black.”
“You have time for what you make time for in life, sleeping can wait. A pastor once told me that the most precious thing you can give someone is your time.”
“So you’re saying that by staying with me longer you’re making me a gift.”
Jade cracked up laughing at my joke. In fact she laughed so much that she was out of words to swing something back at me. She let her head rest against my shoulder after her episode of laughter was over.
“Do you wanna walk the bridge at night?” I asked her, “Looking up at the stars and seeing the city lights in the distance is quite an incredible sight!”
“Yes!” Jade exclaimed joyfully, “I’ve never walked the bridge at night but I’ve always wanted to!”
“I’ll carry you if you want, I know that you’re running out of energy even if you say you aren’t.”
Jade said it sounded like a decent compromise so I carried her on my back a few miles down to the suspension bridge. She let her heavy head flop over my shoulder with her arms slouched over my chest, unable to hold on to anything out of exhaustion. She seemed to slip in and out on consciousness at different times during the walk but I couldn’t say for sure. She grunted and yawned from time to time and if sleep did win over here and there, it wasn’t because she hadn’t put up a fight in order to stay awake. The atmosphere had cooled down considerably by the waters so I gave Jade my light jacket once we got to the bridge’s midsection. She had nothing on but a t-shirt and some jeans with flip-flops. She gladly accepted my jacket but she also expressed worry.
“Now you’re going to get cold,” she said in a mousy voice.
“Don’t worry about me,” I assured her with a playful tone of voice, “I’m exotic.”
“You know that body heat is the best and most efficient way to warm up another person right?”
“If you want me to carry you, you don’t need to make excuses, just say it.”
“Fine then, keep on carrying me!”
I extended my arms towards her and then scooped her up and cradled her on my chest once more. I stood on the edge of the bridge, the traffic to my back, holding Jade and looking at the city lights in the distance with the stars dangling above our heads. There wasn’t a cloud in sight with only a gentle breeze blowing through my hair. Jade held on to the back of my neck with one hand and kept the other one inside the jacket I’d tightly wrapped her in.
“Looking up at the stars and knowing who holds them up gives me peace of mind,” Jade spoke in an awe- filled tone of voice, “sometimes I have my doubts but I know that one day things will turn around.”
“You have more confidence than I ever could have,” I muttered.
“I used to think that I’d have to walk this road alone but then I experienced God’s mercy and grace. Now, no matter where life takes me you’ll always find me with a smile.”
“The stuff that’s been happening lately shakes me to the core and it’s so hard to see the light amidst all of this darkness.”
“God is faithful, just ask him to send an angel.”
“He already did.”
Jade put her other arm around my neck and hugged me tightly, or at least as tight as she could considering she was struggling to stay awake. I let my chin rest gently on top of her head and for the first time in what felt like a century I allowed myself to feel vulnerable and I let a tear escape. I tried hard not to cry, but I couldn’t help myself.
“Yuck! You’re making my hair wet!” Jade exclaimed angrily, making me laugh through my tears, “Quit that stuff right now!”
“Alright, I’m sorry,” I said as I giggled.
Jade wiped my tears away with her fingers and made sure I was okay before letting her head flop on my shoulder once again. In a way it was like Jade kept my heart from getting colder or turning into stone completely. When I’d first arrived in Mapleford I thought I would be one of the good guys but I’d done things that I wasn’t proud of. I was in denial about whether or not I was forced to make a choice that wasn’t mine or if I had done that willingly because I was a sick individual, not very different than the ones I told myself I hated.
“Jasenko,” she said softly after a moment of silence, “I love you.”
I don’t know if I was more surprised by the fact that she’d cared to remember my name or that she’d just told me that she loved me.
“I love you too,” I told her when I was able to catch my breath again.
The two of us stayed there with the breeze blowing through our hair for a few more moments before I got down from the curb on the edge of the bridge. I carried Jade back to the nearest bus stop just in time for the last bus to take her home. I gave her a few dollars to pay her fare since I wasn’t getting on with her. She gave me my coat back and gave me the longest and tightest hug before I had to literally pry her off of me and sit her down in the bus for her to finally let me go. She waved at me through the window as the bus roared away with only a few passengers onboard. I waved back from the outside before turning around and walking away. From time to time I turned back to look at the impressive bridge lit up with the city in the background.
I loitered around for a while looking at the stars in the clear black sky but eventually I made it to the corner of Bolton and Dorchester and laid my head down on the nearest park bench. I slowly closed my tired eyes. The wood was cold but I dozed off out of lethargy and it didn’t take long.
* * *
Only a few hours seemed to have gone by before I was woken up in the best of ways. Ten little fingers played around in my hair and touched my face. I slowly opened my tired eyes to a light blue sky and Jade’s little round face. What time was it? Almost six in the morning maybe? I pulled myself up slowly and sat upright on the bench, pretty sore from having dozed off out of exhaustion in a rather uncomfortable position. I was sore and stiff but I’d had a good night’s sleep nonetheless, all things considered. I looked up at the sky for a moment and saw that the sun was already climbing up on the east side. It was indeed pretty early for Jade to be out on the streets by herself. The city hadn’t even woken up yet! My little friend sat next to me nonchalantly and stared at me with her big round brown eyes.
“When you told me to meet you here you left out the part about meeting you here at this time of the morning,” I muttered as I yawned, still only just half- awake.
“Do you have anything better to do?” she asked me in a cheerful voice, “I don’t.”
“No, I guess I don’t either.”
“I brought you some Barbie shampoo just like you requested. And I stole one of Jason’s razors just in case you wanted to trim that. It’s not very nice to touch.”
Jade scooted from her current position and sat on my lap. I put my arms around her and held her gently. She held her plastic bag in her hand and although I didn’t know what was in it, but it was definitely more than just shampoo and a razor. She probably hadn’t slept too much not any more than I did. She looked tired and her little eyes closed when she let her head flop over my chest.
“I took money out of my mom’s purse and took the first bus from my neighborhood to here,” she said after a while, still with her eyes closed, “then I walked a little bit and saw a dude facedown on a bench so I thought I would go over and talk to him and it turned out to be you.”
“And what would have you done if I hadn’t been here?” I asked her.
“Talked to the homeless guy facedown on the bench until you arrived,” she replied as she let out a couple of giggles in between her words.
“And what if I’d never showed up?”
“Well, I probably would’ve went out looking for your replacement. And I would’ve been really sad.”
“I take it you’re not going to school either.”
We both struggled to stay awake at first but it wasn’t long before the city came to life with a large influx of commuters needing to open up shop by seven and those with much less enthusiastic faces going to early morning classes. Busses passed with a roar, cars honked, people talked, all creating a buzz that you couldn’t ignore.
“What do you want to do today?” I asked Jade as we both watched the traffic pass by.
“I’d like to either ride the metro or a boat,” she replied in a neutral tone of voice, “I’m sort of really familiar with the bus routes and I’ve seen everything. Oh yeah, and I have some money for you.”
“I don’t want your money Jade, or Jason’s money or whatever.”
“It’s my money.”
“I don’t want it either way.”
“You’re saying you don’t even want ice cream?” “I’m saying I can pay for it myself.”
“No you’re not!”
Regardless of what I said, I wasn’t about to win with her. Finally she handed me the bag and I found a pouch of coins, kind of like what you’d find in a piggy bank, a complete shaving kit, a girly bottle of shampoo that smelled like strawberries, a black pashmina scarf, last week’s crumpled up newspaper, a notebook with a pen, a pair of sunglasses and a couple of sugary snacks.
“You have an interesting adventure kit here,” I commented as I looked at all the items in the bag.
“It’s mostly for you,” she added joyfully, “I don’t have many manly objects but I did my best.”
“Thank you,” I replied sweetly.
She smiled when I gave her a kiss on the forehead to thank her for her gift. I unzipped my backpack and squeezed in a spot to put the goodies in. In my bag I had a change of clothes, a hat, my own little pouch of coins and a few hygiene products. It wasn’t much but it was enough for me to survive.
“How did you become homeless?” Jade asked me in a mousy tone of voice after an extended moment of silence between the two of us.
“It’s not a one-sentence answer, but I’ll tell you the short version anyway,” I replied after I let out a loud sigh, “after my parents split, the steady income everywhere went down and eventually it became non- existent to the point that I could no longer sustain myself either. The street is all I had left at the end of the day.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, you seem awfully young to be stuck in something like this.”
“I’ll be twenty later this year, if I live to see my next birthday.”
“I hope you do. I want to see my tenth birthday later this year too. So do you wanna go to the corner store and try my Barbie shampoo?”
“Sure, let’s go.”
Jade and I walked a few blocks at a rather slow pace because I was very tired, lethargic to be more specific, and I hadn’t gotten the chance to swallow any caffeinated drinks to give me a temporary boost either. Jade, on the other hand, was full of energy and my lack of it annoyed her so she grabbed me by the hand and dragged me along the sidewalk through the many commuters filling the downtown streets. I rubbed my tired eyes and then scratched my face where my beard had begun to unevenly grow back. On the bright side I was one of those lucky people who didn’t have the burden of shaving every day. In such circumstances I probably would’ve wanted to shave my whole face off.
“You’re so damn slow!” Jade muttered with a hint of annoyance in her otherwise sweet voice when I wasn’t catching up to her the way she wanted me to.
Eventually we did make it to our destination, but not quickly enough for little Jade. The warmth of the inside of the building only made me drowsier from being out in the cold for so long.
“But I can’t go into the men’s bathroom!” Jade protested when I wanted to go in and take a birdbath but she didn’t want to be alone.
“You can go in the men’s bathroom more than I can go in the women’s bathroom,” I tried to convince her, “just come, we can lock the door behind us.”
“Okay,” she gave up after a few moments of hesitation.
The bathroom wasn’t the best smelling but I couldn’t say it was the foulest smelling either. Obviously the place hadn’t been cleaned in a while, but it was cleaner than the streets. The roof was leaking in the corner so whoever was in charge of the place put in a hose than drained into one of the three sinks on a large counter. For a bathroom the room was quite large. Showers could’ve easily been mounted on one wall since there were no windows. Generally birdbaths made a mess but in my case it would count as cleaning up. Jade was obviously grossed out, and I couldn’t blame a little girl who wasn’t used to stuff like that for reacting negatively.
“On second thoughts maybe it would’ve been better if I’d just stayed outside after all,” Jade muttered, seemingly embarrassed.
“Why?” I asked her, “It smells too bad for you in here or what?”
“No,” she replied blushing, “I don’t want to see you take your clothes off.”
“Just turn around for thirty seconds,” I proposed, “it won’t take long.”
Without saying anything more Jade turned around so she was facing the door and went one step further by covering her eyes with her hands. I quickly stripped down and washed myself as best as a could with the orange liquid soap that had started to dry up in the dispenser. I made quite the puddle of soapy water on the floor but the janitor would have one thing less to do, not that he did much to begin with. I then put on the change of clothes I had in my bag.
“Okay, you can look now,” I told Jade.
She reluctantly turned back my way but didn’t uncover her eyes for another few moments. She began by peeking through her fingers and when she saw that I was decent she removed her hands from blocking her vision and smiled at me.
“How do you like my outfit?” I asked her, “Do I look good?”
“You always look good,” she replied giggling, “because you’re exotic.”
“Thanks hon,” I added.
I was only wearing some faded dark grey sweatpants and a plain black tee I’d gotten from the Salvation Army a few weeks prior. I then proceeded to wash my dirty clothes in the sink and letting them dry over the stalls while I tested out Jade’s Barbie shampoo. Putting my head under the running water of the sink made it splash all over the place much to Jade’s amusement. Like any young child would do, she played around in the constantly growing puddle of water on the floor. The drain in one corner of the room near the sinks must’ve been clogged up completely because not a drop of water went down and the puddle was slowly becoming a lake. I squirted a large dose of the strawberry shampoo into my abundantly greasy hair and created an eruption of bubbles that overflowed onto the counter and of course, the floor. That stuff definitely bubbled up more than your conventional men’s shampoo.
“Make sure you get all the tricky spots behind the ears and everything,” Jade reminded me like a mother would do, “and by the way you could really use a haircut.”
By the time I’d gotten all of that out of my hair the water had even gone underneath the door to create another puddle on the other side. It made me somewhat anxious because I was usually careful not to do precisely that, especially when I planned to leave without cleaning anything up. Since I had no shaving cream I put some of the excess bubbles floating around on my face before taking out the very expensive razor Jade had brought me and grooming myself some more. Growing up I’d always enjoyed the look of facial hair but I couldn’t stand the feel of having it. It itched constantly and it was too warm for what I was used to. Jade laughed at what I was doing and I couldn’t help but start laughing too. I had to stop for a moment so I couldn’t cut myself with the blade but in the end I successfully shaved without any incident.
“You know I’ve never shaved with a blade before,” I told Jade as I was washing everything off my face, “I always bought the cheap battery-operated ones and threw them out when they stopped working.”
My clothes were still damp but I shoved them in my bag anyway when I heard more and more footsteps outside the door. Jade put her little hand in mine as we walked out without drawing any attention to ourselves despite the fact that we both left a trail of wet footprints from the bathroom to the front door. I looked over my shoulder to take one last look at the massive puddle that had begun to flow into an aisle before I walked out abruptly and trying not to laugh when a man appeared to mutter profanity in a foreign language upon noticing the mess I’d made. When we made it outside Jade couldn’t help but crack up laughing as we made it to the nearby bus stop to get out of the neighborhood.
“I’d like to stop by the courthouse and say a prayer or two,” Jade told me in a somewhat sad tone of voice, “nobody is beyond temptation and nobody is beyond redemption.”
“One thing I’ll never understand is how tragedies can either rip people apart or make them stronger,” I muttered as I looked up at the clouds, “I guess it’s like pressure. It can either burst your pipes or make diamonds.”
“With open hearts we can see what matters,” Jade went on in a more upbeat tone of voice, “he chose hate but I chose love. I’m not like him.”
But maybe I was? Was I? Could I ever really be? I’d never harmed anyone and taken pleasure in it. But I was guilty of hatred. Weren’t we all at some point? Was hatred really the common denominator in acts of evil, no matter how bad?
“That’s not something I’ve ever really thought about,” I spoke gently after a few moments of silence on my behalf.
“My prayer is that God’s grace doesn’t escape him and that he may be healed and not die,” Jade continued, “just because you can’t have a new beginning it doesn’t mean that you can’t have a new ending. That goes for everybody, because we’re all guilty at some point.”
Was she able to read my thoughts? Could she see right through me?! Never in my life had I previously imagined that there was another soul out there who wandered the streets that could share my story like that. Puffy white clouds covered a deep blue sky overhead. A large plane flew over the two of us and was heading towards the airport.
“Are you ready for the courthouse?” I asked Jade in a bland and emotionless tone of voice.
“Bring it on!” she said cheerfully.
Once our bus arrived after loitering for a while, I paid for my ticket and Jade joyfully climbed in behind me and smiled at the driver as if she was proud to fall into a loophole that enabled her to ride public transit for free as much as she wanted. There was still a spot at the back through the morning commuters so I sat on the one available seat with Jade on my lap. She seemed happy about that too because she could have a nice view of the scenery outside compared to being in that filthy seat where you couldn’t see anything, plus the back section was on a higher platform than where we’d previously sat. Through the roaring engine and the chatter of the passengers I could hear Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying playing on the radio. Something about that song eerily reminded me of Jade. When I held her something changed inside of me. She taught me how to love. She looked up at me with her big round chocolatey eyes and I couldn’t help but give her a kiss on the forehead.
“What attracts you to street kids like me?” I asked Jade as we both looked at the buildings flying by outside, “We’re the ones that they told you to run from.”
“Because nobody loves me like you love me,” she responded sweetly, “and when I’m gone, please don’t forget to remember me.”
“And where might you be going?”
“You’ll have to ask God that because I’m not the one in control of that but life if like a vapor. One day you’re here and the next you’re not. All of this should remind us of how precious life really is. All life.”
“In times like these you prevent my heart from growing colder.”
“I could say the same about you Matteo. I mean, Jack Sauce. Sorry, that’s just been swirling around my head recently.”
“No worries Jade, anything but Jason.”
She smiled at me again and let her head rest against my chest as she looked outside. The bus stopped every couple of minutes and people got on and off constantly. Their chatter was like a hum through the other noises of the city as more and more sections woke up from a rather peaceful night. No shootouts, no raids, no violence, no sirens, at least not where I’d slept. Closer to the courthouse police vehicles lined up the streets and helicopters hovered around instead of clouds, Everyone wanted a shot of the perpetrator like his face hadn’t been plastered all over the place enough already. Jade looked at them in awe, probably wondering if she’d have her chance at being on camera for just a moment too. Later on in the day the jury would begin deliberations on whether the young man my age would live or die.
“Get out of jail free card,” Jade muttered to herself, “you can’t be held accountable in the court of law when you’re dead.”
* * *
“I don’t understand how the world just raises an eyebrow saying that it’s just another mass shooting in a country plagued with such tragedy but then everybody blows up because of the middle finger he shot to the cops before he was arrested,” Jade contemplated as the two of us sat in the food court, “no pun intended.”
There was a large TV mounted on the wall next to our table and Jade watched the news coverage attentively despite that the sound was muted and the remote was nowhere in sight. All around us people were chatting about the various nightmares turned to reality on the news channel. We lived in a dangerous world but still one with the promise of also turning dreams into reality. That was more than I could say about my homeland.
“I hope that he gets to see God’s face in prison. The important thing to keep in mind here is that heaven is ultimately home, not wherever you are in this earthly dimension. At least that’s what the Bible says, and basically so do all the other scriptures like the Koran too but I only know about Catholicism. You know, I think it’s sad that his family came to America for a better life and this is what ended up of it,” Jade went on with food in her mouth, “but you probably know all about that.”
“I do,” I said softly, poking around my soup with the spoon.
“Do you believe in multiple universes out there?”
“Like Hugh Everett’s theory.”
“Sorry hon but I’ve never heard of that.”
“A while back I overheard some people talking about that at the laundromat and it was very interesting. Like you know, nerdy rich kids with science degrees.”
“Is that something that interests you?”
“Sort of. I’m also interested in law, medicine, the environment, and that’s just what I’ve figured out so far. There’s still so much to discover. I’ve met these forty-year-olds on the bus that still don’t know what they want out of life so I can’t expect to have it all figured out at my age either.”
“You’re in a city with many prestigious schools and considering how smart and articulate you are, you’re probably going to have a PhD before I even get my high school diploma.”
“But I have to go to school first, and I hate school.”
Jade smiled playfully at the contradictions in her dreams for the future. People came and went throughout the food court and Jade also enjoyed eavesdropping on their conversations, not to be impolite, but instead to gain wisdom and insight.
“You wanna know something Jasenko,” she spoke after a few moments, “I wish that people would stop saying that they don’t have time. You have time for what you choose to make time for in life. It’s not about how much you can fit into a certain timeframe, it’s about priorities. You could be doing a million other things but instead you find it in your heart to stay with me.”
“I hope you know that I will never leave you,” I assured her, “unless you kick my butt to the curb or decide to send me to prison or something, then I’m going to respect that.”
“Just so you know, the only reason I’d kick your butt to the curb is if you died and it wouldn’t be because I wanted to.”
“I hear ya.”
“And I should also tell you that I don’t want to go home either. I wanna stay with you.”
“And what’s your mom and Jason gonna say about that?”
“I’ve spent weeks away in the past and they never did a darn thing about it. They never came looking for me and I wasn’t even in danger.”
“Well, I guess you can do what you want. You are your own person and not my property. I’ll keep you if you want to stay so bad.”
“You should go home and get some supplies though. It can get cold out here at night.”
Jade and I agreed to meet at the corner of Bolton and Dorchester again in a couple of hours while she went home and got stuff. In the meantime I would go to the dollar store and stock up on a few things of my own. I still had some leftover coins in my pouch in my backpack for some supplies so I was due for a run to the dollar store anyway. You could find a Dollar Tree on the corner of almost every street so I didn’t have to look far to stock up on goods for only $1.25 or less. As I walked into the store and strolled from aisle to aisle I couldn’t help but notice all the parents with their kids buying crayons and cheap toys. Most of them were Jade’s age, also the same age as some of the younger victims and survivors of the mass shooting that still seemed like it was just yesterday. The whole thing disturbed me so much that I left my cart filled with cheap products in the middle of the aisle and walked out.
The temperature had cooled down considerably since I’d gone in. How long had I been in there? Longer than I’d been aware of it seemed. The sky had darkened and it was almost nighttime so I decided to drop everything and head back down to the corner of Bolton and Dorchester on foot. I usually wasn’t cold in this type of weather, but for some reason I felt frigid inside. Even walking for almost an hour at a fast pace didn’t warm me up. I figured that maybe I was coming down with something so I dismissed it and kept walking. In the distance I saw Jade sitting by herself on the bench that I’d fallen asleep on when she found me earlier that morning. Her short legs were swinging beneath the bench as she waited patiently, looking at the passing traffic and lights off the airplanes passing overhead in the distance. Once I got close she smiled sweetly at me like she always did when she looked at me so lovingly.
“You’re a little late but I forgive you,” she said softly as she signaled me to sit next to her with her hand.
“Sorry hon,” I apologized as I put my arm around her, “I neglected just how fast the clock ticks time away.”
“The important thing is that you showed up. Even if you hadn’t, I wouldn’t’ve gone home anyway. Mom and Jason were fighting like animals and the baby wouldn’t stop crying and I’m not interested in being around when one of them decides to take the pistol out of the drawer.”
“You found a gun in their room?”
“Yeah, I found it a long time ago but that was when things were better and my dad was still alive. He kept it for protection because our house was robbed one time.”
“I’m sorry that this is what you have to deal with, especially at your age. Nobody should have to deal with that.”
“And according to the TV it’s a common occurrence.”
“Unfortunately it is.”
“So where do you usually stay when you’re out on the street?”
“When it’s warm I’ll opt for a bench or a park but when it’s cold I’ll find a place that cuts out the wind. On a night like tonight I’d try under a bridge.”
“But it’s a nice warm night tonight.”
“I’m freezing believe it or not.”
“You must be coming down with a cold. There’s a pharmacy nearby if you want some syrup. The one my grandma gives me works well but I didn’t have any at home.”
The two of us agreed to walk to the nearest pharmacy a few blocks away that hadn’t closed at ten, just a few minutes earlier. Jade handed me her Pokemon backpack filled with things that were important to her. From the weight of the things in there it appeared that she wasn’t intending on going home for quite a while. She was cheerful as we walked in the dark streets illuminated by streetlights on the other side and cars passing by from time to time.
“Even in the rush of things I finally feel like everything is in order,” she told me happily as she skipped next to me on the sidewalk, “no hard feelings and no regrets.”
“In the old days back at my place when I was much younger I believed that when I’d be an adult it would be the happiest time of my life and the most coveted,” I reminisced, “but then I grew up and my eyes were opened.”
“I love traveling through unknown paths and discovering new things,” she went on, “and I know that when all of this is over a happy ending will become reality.”
I smiled at her youthful enthusiasm. It reminded me of my own. It reminded me of a time where things were simpler and my existence wasn’t so complicated.
“One of the things I enjoyed doing where I lived previously was look through the windows of my neighbors’ houses and watch TV,” I said as we passed an apartment building in which the light of the TV was clearly visible from the outside.
When I said that Jade ran up to the window and peaked through. The news story was a report about the upcoming verdict due sometime tomorrow.
“I don’t know what happened to him, how he faded,” Jade said mostly to herself as she turned away and resumed walking, “but if nothing good can come out of this, and if we keep on spreading around hatred and violence then he wins.”
I didn’t speak. I kept on walking next to her in silence up until we reached the pharmacy open all night in one of the not-so-nice neighborhoods of the downtown core. It was a hotspot for gangs and drugs and prostitution at night. I wasn’t particularly comfortable being there but Jade insisted and I decided to trust her.
After all, I wouldn’t be able to keep her if I was unwell. As much as I hated having her exposed to life on the streets I knew that she liked it more than being home so I let her do what she wanted. I cared for her better than her parents did anyway and I’d care for her as long as I was permitted.
“Ugh, this part of the city stinks,” Jade muttered as we neared the pharmacy.
The two of us casually walked into the pharmacy on the corner of the street and Jade walked me to the aisle that contained her favorite syrup. It only took a few moments for someone else to walk in but what I realized too late was that these guys were in the middle of a robbery for prescription meds and they were armed with guns and merciless to bystanders. I thought I could duck down in the aisle and then make a run for it when they weren’t looking but that didn’t work. Jade started running for the door immediately and I ran behind her but the robbers weren’t about to let us go easy after we’d clearly seen their faces and could identify them if they got caught. I didn’t see anything and I felt nothing but numbness everywhere but I clearly remembered hearing the gunshots.
* * *
The next morning I woke up in a hospital bed, gunshot wounds to both legs and a concussion. Not anything serious the nurse told me and the doctor was ready to release me later that morning but first the police wanted to know if I remembered anything from the robbery or if I could identify mugshots of repeat offenders. None of the men in the photos were the culprits but apparently several pharmacies had been robbed that night within a short amount of time so someone was bound to identify them.
“How do you know Jade Grace Timberland?” one of the officers asked me.
“I met her on the bus the previous day, or sometime, I don’t know what day it is anymore” I replied, “is she okay? Where is she?”
“Yeah, she’s known to hitch bus rides and wander around,” the officer replied, “I’m sorry to tell you that she did not survive the assault.”
I’d never previously known what it was like to have a broken heart. If being shot in the leg sent numbness radiating through my body, nothing could describe the grief I was feeling knowing that I’d miserably failed at caring for the little girl I’d been entrusted with. God had given me a gift but of course I’d screwed things up. Not only had I messed up badly, she’d died because of me. She had paid the ultimate price and it was my fault. I should’ve known better than to bring her in an area like that. I knew better, I really did, but that logic had went down the drain somewhere along the way. Why? Why did the young and innocent have to suffer unjustly like that? I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye. I didn’t get the chance to tell Jade I loved her. And I wouldn’t get the chance to say I’m sorry either.
The officers thanked me for my cooperation and wished me a speedy recovery before they left my room and moved on with their investigation. Just before noon the doctor came to see me to see how I was doing. Hospital staff came by to see if I could walk and properly get around by myself. The bullet hadn’t gone in very deep into either of my legs. Jade was the one who’d gotten most of the spay of ammunition. Her parents must’ve hated me. They must’ve wanted me dead. I would’ve given my life in exchange for hers in a heartbeat. No second thoughts. No regrets and no hard feelings. The only consolation I had was that if there was indeed a place called heaven the way she believed there was, she’d gone straight there. I’d never been religious but I had to believe for her. She was in no more pain. She wouldn’t have to deal with the smelly downtown streets or Jason or me or anyone.
The doctor deemed that I was okay to be released later that day. He gave me instructions on how to clean my wounds once I took the bandages off before he let me go. Before I left I was given my stuff at the counter, including a Pokemon backpack. I swallowed hard and ran outside before I broke down in tears in the parking lot of the hospital. I clutched the bag in my arms and headed for the bus stop that was just across the street. I didn’t have anywhere to go but a part me hoped to find Jade on the bus. Maybe she was headed towards the courthouse and I’d find her sitting around with some of the anti-death penalty advocates gathered there. But I knew that I was kidding myself. Jade was gone and I could ride all around the city without finding her. She was gone. She was dead because of me.
I rode around the city on the bus for hours and hours until finally the driver asked me if I was alright once it parked at the station in the early evening. All I did was shrug. She smiled softly at me before returning to her seat up front. Finally I got off the bus before a new wave of people boarded it. Inside the station I flopped down on the first available seat in front of a large TV mounted on the wall. I saw a newspaper on the table not far from me. Jade loved looking at the newspaper even though she couldn’t read much of it. A newscast was about to come on in a few minutes too. In the meantime I decided to finally open up the Pokemon backpack. I hadn’t been ready before. I took a deep breath and unzipped the little Oddish zipper about halfway through before I had to stop. It was still too painful. I wanted to preserve that little piece of her that I had left so I zipped up the bag without looking at the contents inside.
There was another small pocket on the front that was partially opened so I decided to content myself with opening that one. Inside there was a pen with a couple of crumpled up postcards with notes she’d written on the back. I clutched them tightly in my hands, crumpling them up even more but I couldn’t help it. I wanted to feel a little piece of Jade in my hands again. I was momentarily distracted by the newscast beginning on TV. Someone turned up the volume when the top story was the verdict in the Torres trial. I squeezed the postcards even more as my heart began to race. For the first time I wanted so much for him to live. For Jade’s sake I prayed that he hadn’t been sentenced to death, but my hopes were soon crushed.
“Tonight’s top story is the verdict in the Torres trial,” the anchor began in a very seriously tone of voice, “after deliberations the jury voted unanimously to sentence him to death by lethal injection.”
The rest I didn’t remember. I only let go of the postcards when my first was becoming numb from holding on to them so hard. Seeing the chunk of cardboard they’d turned into I quickly tried to undo the damage. On the back of a postcard of the Empire State Building I was brought to tears again by Jade’s messy handwriting.
“If you think you’re too small to have an impact just think about trying to go to sleep when there’s a mosquito in the room!”