Posted in Everything Else, Personal & Opinion

My Quora Year In Review 2017

Earlier this year I signed up for Quora on a whim and ended up enjoying it quite a bit. I wrote 165 answers, got 32 followers and a combined total of 903 upvotes. That’s not bad for somebody who is a complete nobody and is unknown to just about the entire world. This list is my top 10 most upvoted answers on Quora this year, and the wide range of topics had made it for an interesting compilation for me to create! 😀

#10 — Is there any advice on for a PTSD survivor?

At number ten, my answer to this question got 10 upvotes. It’s not the first time I’ve answered questions about PTSD in fact. I myself was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 and I’ve had so-so success with various different treatments. Certainly, as life progresses I will write more about this topic.

#9 — Would you rather have sex or pizza?

I picked the pizza on this one, and 12 people apparently also wanted the pizza. Me being asexual was the reason I picked the pizza but I mean seriously, you never run the chance of getting pregnant or catching an STD from eating pizza. But then again you probably won’t get food poisoning from sex either 😛

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#8 — Since Stalin was ethnically Georgian and Georgians were among the ethnic groups the Nazis considered “Eastern Aryans,” would Stalin have been considered racially “pure” by the Nazis?

With two more upvotes than my asexual pizza, at 14 total upvotes, Joseph Stalin gets the 8th spot. Nazis hated communists and Bolsheviks. A person’s ethnicity wasn’t the only thing factored into whether or not a person was worthy of life so to speak under Nazi doctrine. That little tyrant with the big mustache would’ve gone to the gulag.

#7 — Can Muhammad be called the symbolic father of all evil?

Holding at 15 upvotes, another one of those Islamophobic questions on Quora. That website tends to be quite friendly to bigots of all types, including Nazis (I’ve also answered a great deal of anti-Semitic questions) and no matter how many times you actually prove them wrong, people still seem to have their heads stuck up their asses. This one got particularly awkward when the link provided with the question led to an Islamophobic page on the website of Daniel Pipes who wishes to say he does not endorse certain content yet has no qualms about putting it up there for the world to see and does nothing to counter it.

Or so it seems. Ironically on his Wikipedia page there are several quotes where he has positive things to say about Islam taken from public interviews. So which one is the real Daniel Pipes? Or maybe there are two? Muslims are not terrorists and Muhammad (pbuh) is not the symbolic father of all evil. I’ve made that clear in my answer to that very stupid question.

#6 — Is it bad to be sexually active at 13?

Yes it is! And having the most upvoted answer on the question, at 17 upvotes total, shows that people with a head on their shoulders agree. This is quite an interesting thing to contemplate though, because throughout history it was not considered too young to be sexually active at 13. The age of consent laws and similar legislation are a fairly modern phenomenon. I most certainly stand by my opinion that it’s bad to be sexually active at 13. I even think that the modern age of consent laws are often set too low. Up until just a couple of years ago you only needed to be 14 to get married in Canada.

#5 — Who was the most repentant Nazi?

At 30 upvotes, this answer was my first one to get quite a bit of attention. Nazis were not known to be repentant and in fact I can count on the fingers of one hand those whom I know of who apologized publicly. Another interesting thing about this one though, is the fact that Rudolf Höss wasn’t just some random Nazi, he was the commandant of Auschwitz and is believed to have created the largest installation for the continuous annihilation of human beings ever known.

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#4 — What are some opinions of Sikh people? I have only just started discovering more about them as an American, but all the people I have spoken to say that Sikhs are trustworthy, kind, and honorable people.

Indeed they are! This question spikes in upvotes again, having 55 in total. This question actually appeared randomly in my feed and I decided to answer it on a whim. It was nice to be able to both read and say something positive about a certain group of people instead of just having to see and deal with ignorance and bigotry. ❤

# 3 — What do you get when you add “with a chainsaw” to the title of the last book you read?

Another funny and quirky question with an answer that got a total of 57 upvotes. I posted the book An Uncommon Journey which I recommend everyone here to read, and “with a chainsaw” at the end of the complete title it comes out “An Uncommon Journey: From Vienna To Shanghai To America, A Brother and Sister Escape the Nazis with a Chainsaw.” The part that I think people liked the most was “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared With a Chainsaw.” Yep, that sounds really badass 😛

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#2 — Were there any good Nazis?

Coming in at number 2 with 81 upvotes is probably my favorite of my answers. I got to tell the story of my favorite historical figure, Heinz Heydrich. I’ve posted about him before on here and a few more times on Quora as well, but that answer is the only one that got any notable attention. For those of you who do not know the story of Heinz Heydrich, in short he was a Nazi who saved Jews. He helped many Jews escape the Holocaust and yes, he was also the little brother of the evil Gestapo chief Reinhard Heydrich. It’s crazy how different two brothers can be.

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#1 — Can you show me a picture of your cat?

Stealing the show with 86 upvotes, my cat Squeaker wins my 2017 Quora year in review. People like cats more than pizza and good Nazis but hey I’m not going to complain because I’m indeed a crazy cat lady myself. Below are the original photos I posted in my answer. Squeaker is indeed the best buddy I ever could have asked for!

I will be back on Quora in 2018 once again to talk about cats, Nazis, pizza and sex. 😛 Happy New Year everyone! I will see you all next year! 😉

Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume Four: All Parts

Visit my official website to download the free PDF version of this book as well as many others or scroll below to read the stories right here on WordPress. If you enjoy these free stories please consider supporting my writing career by buying one of my paid books. 😀

This final volume of the Lost Thoughts contains five short stories of 10 000 words each about social issues. They include a variety of topics from teen troubles to gang violence on the streets and incorporates themes of both reality and fantasy; each story is filled with meaning and has a strong moral. This collection of stories are a quick but moving read that are sure to leave a mark on anyone who takes them to heart.

Table of Contents

Lost Thoughts

Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume Four: Home (Alternate Version)

Just another day with overcast skies. It didn’t seem as if those fat ass clouds were going to soak me to the bone though, but they obstructed the sun. They were all over the place, shunning away a light blue sky. I walked towards the riverbank in the boondocks which was mostly sewage nowadays because the water had been severely polluted somewhere along the way of way back before I ever made it to town. Not much stood around that part of town anymore; abandoned buildings, some partially burned, a graffiti-covered overpass that was once used by a now non-existent train, and the vandalized site of a dead construction project. I didn’t know what was supposed to be built there actually, but there were green pipe pieces stacked up all over the place on the other side of the river. At night some people slept in them because it shielded them from the wind. Litter covered most of the ground, the place was an urban dump.

From time to time you would see police cars go by, attempting to find the manufacturers of that new fancy and very lethal meth being passed around the streets. But no luck, I was usually the only person in the area. The punks who usually hung out under the bridge at night had vanished a couple of nights ago, most likely scared of or shooed by the police. I had spent one night under that unused overpass, and something or someone had cried the whole night somewhere around the pipes across the river. There was no lighting of any kind except for the faint moonlight making the water glow so I couldn’t see what or who it was. An old legend said that there was a woman who drowned in those waters in the 1600s and since then her mermaid cries could be heard periodically under the right conditions. But whatever that was last night, it sure as hell hadn’t been a mermaid.

I stood where the dirt met the pavement right before a path took you down to the dark brown water. Apparently the sky was blue because it reflected the ocean’s color but the ocean was also blue because it reflected the sky’s color. So which one was it? Something was yellow by the boondocks because the whole place appeared to be covered by a layer of haze giving everything a light sepia texture. Then I turned around and saw that a little boy was standing a few feet behind me. He looked about seven years old, maybe a little more and maybe a little less. It was hard to tell. I was nineteen, but I didn’t look a day passed fifteen according to the people I met around the streets. The little doe-eyed boy had some slightly ethnic features, thick curly black hair and rags for clothes that made him look like a street kid just as much as I me. He was probably the neglected unwanted child of immigrants whose dreams had been crushed when they were met with nothing but poverty in the so-called land of dreams and prosperity.

The kid looked shy, possibly even scared of me, so I squatted down and extended one hand towards him. He reluctantly approached me but eventually he came to put his little cold hand in mine. It definitely wasn’t the warmest spring day. I pulled him over to me and brushed his hair out of his little face. He looked straight into my eyes without saying a word. Did he know that I disliked children? Did he know that I had been abused ten years ago when I was his age? Could he see my soul through my eyes? If he did, he wasn’t about to let me in on his secret. I gently squeezed his little hand to reassure him that I wasn’t one of the bad guys. I wanted much of the same things he did. I wanted to be loved and cherished, reassured, comforted, coddled and to know I was safe.

“What’s your name?” I asked the kid.

He didn’t answer. It seemed like he didn’t understand, or maybe he was deaf and couldn’t understand. Or maybe he just didn’t speak English.

There were indeed a lot of people who had washed up ashore in the area who didn’t speak a word of English. I had learned a lot of non-English from the streets.

“What’s your name?” I asked him again but in Russian.

At the same time I scooped him up and put him over my shoulder. I had enough spare change in my pocket to buy two cheap meals from a fast food joint downtown. The kid was pretty skinny and probably hungry too since he had been wandering out in the boondocks away from all life by himself.

“I don’t know,” he said in Russian in a shy tone of voice.

What kind of person doesn’t know their own name?

“You don’t know?” I muttered in a surprised tone of voice.

The boy didn’t respond. He was quiet for the entire walk to the bus stop and I didn’t exactly know what to tell him. My Russian wasn’t great and my mouth definitely wasn’t clean. The bus arrived almost as soon as I joined the small crowd looking to go downtown too. I paid for my fair and sat in one of the only free seats in the overcrowded city bus. The fair was free for kids under ten who were accompanied by an adult. My nameless kid sat on me and looked in awe all around him. The buildings were just a grey blur as the bus sped down the bus lane and into the downtown core. It was a rough ride but the little guy had a big smile on his face. He probably had never been on public transit like that. My first time on the city bus was pretty epic too. It was just six years ago that I washed up in town too. Another stranger in a strange land just trying to make it and wanting a better life. That wasn’t exactly what had happened.

Aleksey’s was where I brought the boy. I knew one of the waitresses there and they offered discounted meals to street kids so I had become part of the Aleksey family of street kids a long time ago. When I walked in three of the bridge kids were sitting at a booth near the window. When one of them saw me he signalled me to come over and sit with them. I took the little boy by the hand and the two of us walked over to the guys where I slouched in the only vacant seat and the kid sat on me much like he had done on the bus. Dmitry, Douglas and Xander were all eating a huge portion of chicken nuggets which was the special of the day every Tuesday. They offered me some so I wouldn’t have to buy myself some. Xander put a couple more in a napkin and gave them to the kid.

“Who’s the kid?” Xander asked with food in his mouth.

“I don’t know,” I replied in embarrassment, “I found him near the bridge and he doesn’t seem to know who he is either.”

“There’s too much smog to hang out by the overpass today,” Dmitry added, “that sewage you call a river smells bad on days like today.”

It had indeed smelled pretty bad. The odor of decaying garbage had been rampant. Factor in the humidity and you could swear you were digging up dead bodies on those gross sticky days.

“What’s your kid’s name?” Dmitry asked after a sip of root beer.

“Why don’t you ask him, he speaks Russian,” I replied.

Dmitry locked eyes with the boy and smiled softly at him, much like I had done to break the ice and let the shy kid know that I wasn’t the enemy. Then my friend sweetly asked him what his name was but he got the same answer I got. Я не знаю.

“He looks like a little Matteo Torres” Douglas said as he chuckled.

“Who?!” Xander asked, perplexed.

“The douche bag who shot up the mall in 2015,” Dmitry fired back, “he got a death sentence four days ago!”

“Oh!” Xander giggled for a moment, “It’s so mean to call the little kid like that.”

The boys erupted into laughter at the lack of seriousness obviously felt in the room. The guys told each other crude jokes as they swallowed the rest of their discounted food.

“Well, do you have a better idea?” I asked apathetically once the episode of laughter was over.

I most certainly wouldn’t remember names like Saidmagomed, Miroslav or Valgeir even if the little boy did remember his name. I asked him in Russian if he wanted to be named Matteo and instantly a huge smile stretched across his little face. The boys cracked up laughing and so did I. For the couple of hours that I was going to spent with the kid, I might as well have some fun and share some laughs. After I fed him and rode around town for a while with him I’d just drop him off at the nearest police station and move on with my life. Never would have to think about it again. And with that I thanked the boys for the food, grabbed Lil Matt, swung him over my shoulder and left the restaurant. The bus stop was nearby so I stood on the sidewalk and waited for Bus #176 to arrive.

“Where are we going?” Lil Matt asked me in Russian with an enthusiastic tone of voice.

“I’m going to show you the city,” I replied softly, “is there anywhere in particular you want to go?”

“I want to see the suspension bridge!”

“Alright then, let’s go!”

The bus pulled up and I handed some coins to the driver and sat in the middle section. Lil Matt sat on me and looked out the window at the buildings flying by again. The bus was pretty crowded but on the good side I got to see Sandra. Her and I had become acquainted at a homeless shelter for youth several years ago. We had taken each other in when we had nobody else and we had stuck together in the adversity of the recession. If the wealthy were going bankrupt what do you think was happening to the ones who had nothing to begin with? Sandra had since moved on to bigger and better things; had gotten a job and an apartment and a cat and a life. Unlike me, who had accomplished nothing of value in all the years since then. I was indeed very happy for her, but it had taken a toll on our friendship. We very solemnly saw each other, and when we did we only exchanged a few meaningless words before moving on with our lives and not looking back.

“Hi Gwendolyn,” she spoke softly to me, seemingly apprehensive about my reaction.

“Hi Sandra,” I muttered in response as Lil Matt waved at her.

“Who is your little boy?” she asked, waving back at him from the other side of the bus.

“He’s my little Mapleford mall shooter boy,” I replied sarcastically, thinking back to Doug’s comment before shrugging, “honestly I don’t know Sandy. I found him by the bridge and Douglas Morgan named him Matteo because he doesn’t know his own name.”

Sandy had the same face I did when the little boy told me he didn’t remember what his name was.

“What kind of person would name a child after a mass shooter?” she asked in disgust.

All I could do was raise an eyebrow and shrug. I had no doubt that the authorities would find out who Robert, Darrell, Pedro, Anthony or Vladimir really was and they’d take good care of him once I handed him over. Without him I’d just be left to waste away the day in my own misery by myself. Matteo seemed to be content with life either way.

“What are you going to do with him Gwen?” Sandy asked me in a now worried tone of voice.

“I’m gonna buy him some ice cream and take him to see the ocean,” I replied in a nonchalant tone of voice.

“Well, this is my stop, I guess I’ll see you two later.”

“Goodbye Sandra.”

And that concluded another typical conversation. After she and a couple of others got off the bus, the engine quickly roared to life again. Lil Matt put his arms around my neck and pulled himself closer to me. I ran my fingers through his thick black hair that was as soft as silk.

“Do you love me?” he asked me as he looked up at me with those big chocolatey eyes.

How could anyone say no?

“Of course I love you little guy!” I reassured him as I affectionately squeezed him.

“I love you too mom,” he said in a sweet little voice.

I held him tighter. Where was that kid’s mom? Why did he think I was his mom? He had known me five minutes! I couldn’t tell him I wasn’t his mom because he would probably freak out. So I simply held him. Bad memories of my mother came crashing down around me. She threw me out I was only thirteen. I told her that her pervert boyfriend had put his hands on me and instead of believing me she threw my ass onto the side of the road. I squeezed Matteo even tighter as I was haunted by that terrible time. How could I just shove him aside once the day was over? Had I found someone to hold me and love me like that a decade ago I would not have wanted them to let go of me. And with that I had another huge problem on my hands.

“Well, we’re here,” I said after the bus came to a halt after about twenty minutes, “do you want some ice cream?”

“Yes!” the little boy shouted in pure excitement, “Vanilla please.”

I still had some money left over so I bought him what he wanted and took him by the hand and we walked up to the enormous, larger than life suspension bridge looming ahead. I had walked on that thing only once before. I had also jumped off, and survived obviously. There was nothing more insulting than trying to kill yourself but surviving what is supposed to be the one infallible way to die. Why hadn’t I tried again? That was one of the many million dollar questions left unanswered in my existence. But back then I didn’t have Lil Matt.

“Mom, I’m scared,” he said in a timid voice as he turned back to look at me for a moment as we approached the structure.

What I didn’t tell him was that I was scared too.

“Don’t you worry honey,” I tried to reassure him as I took him by the hand, “it’s just a bridge. It can’t hurt you unless you let it.”

I didn’t know if that had been an appropriate thing to say or not. But who was I kidding? He was just a child, he wouldn’t understand the underlying message hidden behind my words. He couldn’t read my thoughts or look into my eyes and see my soul. He tightly squeezed my hand and took a very cautious step in the direction of the big grey steel structure right before him. He was indeed in awe at the size of the bridge, but I could also see him looking beyond the metal bars at the ocean. He accidentally dropped his ice cream, the remnants of the cone were pulverized as they came into contact with the pavement but the little dude didn’t throw a fit about it. He was way too taken by the sparkling blue ocean to even remember he was holding an ice cream cone in his tiny little hand.

The two of us walked slowly at first onto the bridge. The cars sped by all going to important places at the speed of lightning. A gust of wind accompanied each of them as they flew by so fast that we could barely see them. One by one the roared passed us. Matteo seemed to be feeling more confident after a few moments of walking slowly by the railing so he sped up his pace but I stayed behind for a little while. He constantly kept turning around and urging me to speed up and catch up to him. He looked at me with those big brown eyes and raised an eyebrow at me. A big grin swept over my face only the way he could make one appear. I hadn’t smiled in such a long time I had completely forgotten what that felt like. I quickened up my pace so I could catch up to the little guy who had since gotten over his initial fear of the large steel structure. He smiled as I scooped him up into my arms and placed him on the railing so he could get a much better view of the ocean since he was so small.

“Woah!” he exclaimed in awe at the beauty and sheer vastness of the sparkling waters.

Even I had never seen the waters up close and beautiful like that. Or at least I had never appreciated it like that.

“It’s so much more beautiful when you have someone to appreciate it with,” my little dude told me in his sweet voice as if he could listen in on my thoughts.

I don’t know what Lil Matt was doing to me deep inside but he had found a fault line in my soul. There was a hole in my heart and Matteo had stuck his little hand right into it. I couldn’t understand it, but I could definitely feel it. When he pushed my dirty red hair out of my face and placed his little hand over my eyebrow and traced the scar that went down the side of my face it was as if all of my wrongs were made right; all that was black became white; all that was once obscured came into the light.

* * *

The boondocks at the south end of the city were in near- complete darkness when Lil Matt and I finally arrived there. It had been a tough walk. My little guy had passed out in my arms a long time ago. The old Percy Building was where I usually spent the night when I wanted to be alone and quiet, at the expense of being cold at times. It had once been a medical clinic of some kind that had long since been abandoned. A few things still remained in the building here and there but whatever good that was left being had been looted long before I found the place. Somebody had brought in a mattress big enough for two people considering that most street kids were emaciated anyway and an old dirty sheet with a matching blanket and the remnants of a ripped up cushion for a pillow. Whoever had put it there never came back to sleep in his or her makeshift dwelling place nor to get back the stuff.

The place might’ve been cold, but it was cozy enough. I could be in complete solitude. The moonlight entered the dusty old windows on one side of the huge square empty room and the headlights of passing vehicles often illuminated the other side. Once I got in I deposited Lil Matt onto the hard and cold mattress and I flopped down next to him. I pulled up the raggedy-assed blanket over us before gently putting my arm around him and bringing him closer to me to make sure he stayed warm for the indefinite amount of time the two of us would be spending in there. I usually passed out as soon as my head hit that cushion in my space of solitude and serenity but despite how tired I was from my walk, I couldn’t close an eye. I was restless, in stark contrast to Matteo who was completely limp and immobile next to me as he slept peacefully. The night was a long one, and it was really only when the sky began to turn blue again that my energy finally gave out.

“Wake up mama!” I heard a sweet voice say in Russian as I felt a cold little hand touch my face.

I squinted as a fury of very bright lights attacked my unprepared eyes. It must’ve been around noon for the sky to be so lit up by the sun. Had I really slept that long?

“Good morning Matteo,” I muttered in my half-awake state.

I rolled onto my back and closed my eyes again. Not yet. I took a series of deep breaths but Lil Matt wasn’t about to let me relax. He was fully awake, and hungry, and needing attention and all that other stuff little kids need in a day.

“You look happy today,” I commented as I rubbed my face and sat up in my makeshift bed.

The bright yellow sunlight illuminated the moldy plaster on the walls, making all sorts of shapes and patterns to someone with a creative brain. I could almost see Jesus looking back at me near the south- facing window.

“No matter how good or bad your life is, wake up each morning being thankful that you still have one!” Lil Matt exclaimed joyfully like he inherently knew that I needed to hear something like that.

“That’s right little man,” I said a little more enthusiastically, “we might be homeless but we’re in the free world.”

There was a corner store nearby so I brought Lil Matt with me so we could eat but first clean ourselves up in the bathroom a little bit. I brought a change of clothes for myself that I had stuffed in an old broken cabinet in the Percy Building. That partially-destroyed cabinet was one of the only pieces of furniture left in there. Nobody ventured there so I didn’t feel apprehensive about leaving my some of stuff there. I always carried my money with me though. In the bathroom I locked the door behind us so our birdbaths would not be interrupted by others possibly seeking to clean themselves up too. The bathroom definitely wasn’t the cleanest I’d ever set foot in. The floor was visibly dirty and the counter was ridden with stains, some of them were sticky but I didn’t want to know what that stuff was. I turned on the hot water and the pipes in the wall made an atrocious screeching noise followed by a constant belligerent hum as the source of all earthly life forcefully splashed all over the place. Lil Matt thought it was funny that I got sprayed because the water came out of the tap too strongly to remain in the sink.

“The funny thing about pressure is that it can either burst your pipes or make diamonds,” he said with a playful grin literally stretching ear to ear on his little face.

Impressive for such a young boy. I stripped him of his clothes and told him to wash himself in the other sink next to me while I tried to clean up his clothes as best as I could. Then I used the hand dryer in attempts to dry up his wet shirt but the air coming out of it was cold and it didn’t do a great job. I heard someone trying to open the women’s bathroom door in the background and muttering profanity when they realized it was locked. I hung up Matteo’s clothes over the three stalls as I then proceeded to clean myself up in the sink, switching clothes and washing my old clothes. By the time we were done there was a puddle of water the size of the ocean on the floor and the corner store manager was pounding angrily on the door, even threatening to call the police if we didn’t unlock it soon.

That all reminded me that I’d have to hand over Lil Matt at some point or another because he wasn’t my kid and his parents were probably going through the roof not knowing where their little boy was. But I wanted to spend more time with him. He brought out a side of me that I previously didn’t know still existed. He brought such sweetness and tenderness to an otherwise bitter and pointless existence. Whereas I was once the tree that fell and made no sound, Matteo was like a breeze of fresh air blowing through my leaves. In a sense I felt rather guilty for naming him after a mass shooter, but in another sense the contrast brought out a little humanity in an otherwise inhumane environment. There was a glimpse of light among the darkness. There was a little breath of hope where for a moment I believed that even if I couldn’t get a new beginning, I could at least get a new ending.

“Mama, please promise me that you’ll never leave me again!”

Just like the kid could read my mind. Maybe he could see right through my soul after all.

“I promise you that you’ll never be alone little man,” I told him gently as I hugged him.

Then I gathered all our stuff, made sure he was properly dressed for the weather, scooped him up over my shoulder and we exited through a small bathroom window. I first threw our things outside, dropped Matteo over them so his fall wouldn’t be as hard as being dropped on concrete, and jumped afterwards. I giggled gently as I heard the store manager yelling more and more as the seconds ticked away and the door still didn’t open.

“You should go apologize to him,” he told me in his usual sweet little voice.

“How about we leave the apologies for later?” I told him nonchalantly as I grabbed him by the hand, “For now let’s have some fun!”

It started with mooching a few dollars, getting some new outfits for free from The Salvation Army, having too much ice cream, running around in the park and getting dirty in the sand, the day ended with going down to the boondocks to watch the sunset while eating some dollar store chocolate bars. I had never previously enjoyed such trivial pleasures in my life. Once again it seemed like the kid knew what I was thinking.

“The Bible says that all you can do is enjoy eating and drinking and what you’ve been given in life because without God everything is meaningless.”

That brought back some interesting memories. Soon after I’d become homeless a pastor had given me a pocket-sized King James Version of the book but I had given it away to another homeless man who had precisely asked me if I could get him a Bible. He didn’t know that I was homeless too but I had honestly no interest in the book so I gave it to him. The biggest smile appeared on his face and revealed that he had very few teeth left in his mouth. He thanked me and blessed me and then went around chanting praises in the street. That was the closest encounter I’d ever had with the book, and it wasn’t close at all. So many throughout history said it brought them comfort and hope during their hardest moments, but nothing but numbness overcame me in my day-to-day life and it was probably better that I didn’t feel too much.

Just having Matteo’s head of thick black hair under my forearm somewhat gave me anxiety. I didn’t want to bond with him and then have to lose him or have him taken from me. It was another mental tug of war for me in which I wouldn’t come out the winner. Not only did I have my long list of selfish reasons not to get too close to him, but I also believed that not getting close to him would also protect him. I might as well could’ve been the water that would drown him or the fire that would burn him completely. Simply thinking was meaningless, because he had already adopted me as his mom and I’d already promised him to stand by his side and not leave him no matter what. But then again, I guess wounds don’t exactly heal the way you want them to. They heal the way they need to, and obviously Matteo had found the fault line in my soul.

Eventually he dozed off in my arms and I had to carry him in my arms back to the shack that was the closest thing I had to a home again. The sun was just beginning to go down over the polluted waters and when you looked the other way a light blue turning to dark covered the sky beyond the clouds. Generally I enjoyed hanging around outside at night with the guys and raising a little hell but that was not a lifestyle for children. Maybe if I hadn’t been subjected to that I would not have turned out the way I eventually did. I was innocent. Or at least, I had been innocent. I couldn’t say that anymore. But my little Matteo was innocent. He didn’t deserve the street life. Nobody did. On the way back to the old Percy building I crossed paths with Xander who was smoking a joint as he sat on the steps of an abandoned church in the area.

“You still have the kid!” he exclaimed emotionlessly as I passed by him, “Is his name still Matteo?”

“Yes and yes,” I replied as I looked down at his little sleeping face.

“Don’t let anything stand in your path Gwen,” Xander muttered softly after a few deep puffs, “even if that means that you have to stand alone.”

I walked into the Percy building with the kid in my arms feeling unexplainably deflated after my conversation with Xander. Why? What is really true what I had been told about being depressed? Running away from reality? What did any of those people know about my reality anyway? Earlier in the day I had been able to take a breath of air, so what happened? It most definitely wasn’t the cancer sticks that my street friend had been smoking that drew the air out of my lungs in such a manner.

* * *

The right things will reveal themselves to you if you abandon your ideas as to what they should be. That’s what I had also been told. I wasn’t sure I knew what exactly that meant though. The best I could do was assume that Matteo had been that right thing for me in my life. As I looked at him slouched over my shoulder and chest, sleeping peacefully on the dirty mattress with nothing but a few streaks of light peeking through as the sun was just coming up over the horizon. I fought with myself as doubt began creeping in. Was I doing the right thing? Or was I killing him slowly? My common sense and what usually kept me grounded and going was now nothing more than a whisper lost upon the wind. It was official: I was cracking up inside.

A wave of unexplained anxiety swept over me suddenly. I began to sweat, my heart rate went through the roof and I started having chest pains. For a few seconds I thought that maybe I was having a heart attack because it was so bad, but then I took a series of deep breaths to keep things under wraps. My little panic attack had of course woken up Lil Matt. That’s exactly what I was hoping didn’t happen but since when was I in control of anything in my life? Everything that had been inflicted upon me seemingly had been by a force much bigger than me and I’d had absolutely no say in it. Was that just what I had been handed in my life, or was I to blame? I couldn’t tell you. The more I contemplated such existential questions the less I was able to find proper answers.

“Your heartbeat is so loud!” he grumbled as he sat up next to me, “Nobody can sleep with all that noise!”

I flashed him a brief smile. That was all I could do. The anxiety hadn’t quite left me just yet. It was as if something inside of me had shifted, but I couldn’t fathom what. I’d never been able to comprehend existence, why would this experience be any different?

“I’m hungry,” my kid said affirmatively.

“Yeah, I’m hungry too,” I muttered as I rubbed my eyes, “let’s go get some food.”

Aleksey’s was where we went again. Xander was loitering on the side of the road again as we arrived there. He still had the same stone-faced and apathetic attitude he’d had the night before. That wasn’t quite like him either. Was he feeling the same things I was? I raised two fingers in a peace sign to greet him and Lil Matt happily waived at him as we approached the diner.

“I don’t know how to tell you this Gwendolyn,” he began after a deep sigh but didn’t finish his sentence.

“Just let the floodgates open,” I replied apathetically as I reached to open the door to go into the restaurant.

“Ed Gerber is back in town,” he eventually puffed out after a few moments.

That’s what had been bothering him, and he knew that it would bother me too. Ed Gerber and I had a history. I used to work for him on the street and when I got in trouble with the law I ratted him out to save my own ass. I got off but he went to prison for a few months, and he wasn’t about to forgive me for what I had done. I knew he’d try to get back at me somehow. He was depraved enough to kill me if it came to that to settle the score between us. Did he have a reason not to? I had cost him everything. Not only him, but his family and his associates.

“Thanks for telling me,” I muttered out apathetically, still too numb to utter out anything more. “What are you going to do about it?” he asked.

I didn’t have answer to that question. I couldn’t really skip town. Where would I go? I had nothing to begin with but I had made a home out of an empty house, I knew people who had my back, I knew how to get around, I knew the boundaries of my own turf. But then I looked at Lil Matt.

“I don’t know man,” I spit out, “but right now I gotta feed my kid.”

I stormed off. My chest tightened up and the world seemed to spin a little bit. The planet did indeed orbit around the sun and then some, but humans had no concept of that in their daily life. I got some takeout for Matteo, I swung him over my shoulder and then I stormed off in another fury.

“Where are we going mom?” he asked me in his usual sweet voice.

“I’m dropping you off at the police station and they’ll find a safe home for you,” I managed to utter out after a few moments as my voice was beginning to crack.

Of course he flipped out. How could I make a little boy understand that his life was possibly in danger and that it was all my fault? I at least had to try, so I sat him down on a park bench near a downtown street and told him we needed to have a serious conversation.

“Look Matteo,” I said softly as I knelt down in front of him and look straight into his big eyes, “my mind has no heart and my heart has no brain so when I make a decision with my mind it seems like I have no heart but when I make a decision with my heart I come across as completely mindless.”

“Mom,” he said calmly after he saw how distressed I was, “home is where the heart is. Stop trying to complicate something that should be simple.”

He had me once again. How could I counter words like that? How could I ditch him but how could I keep him? Which one was the lesser of two evils? What would end up of him if I left him? But how would he grow up if I kept him? It didn’t matter how much I wrestled with myself, I wasn’t in it to win.

“Okay honey,” I choked up after an extended moment of silent self-contemplation, “but we gotta get out of this town. We’re gonna go grab all of our things and we’re heading to the bus terminal and we’re going anywhere but here. Deal?”

“Deal!” he exclaimed with a smile that stretched from ear to ear.

We didn’t have a whole to pack. Nothing that wouldn’t fit in a couple of bags that you could carry on your back. I tried to pack as much as I could but some things like mattresses and old pieces of furniture unfortunately don’t fit inside a backpack. I hated having to leave that behind because I knew that I probably wouldn’t get another one. I didn’t know where we were going but I guess we’d figure it out when we got to the station. The day had passed by so fast and we probably wouldn’t be able to get far plus I had very little cash left. I didn’t even take the time to say goodbye to any of my friends. The longer I stayed around the more chances I had to run into Ed Gerber and that was simply something I couldn’t do. It weighed on me heavily to walk out on the people that had never walked out on me, but I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was sure that they’d understand the circumstances.

The sun was going down over the waters as Matteo and I walked to the bus station. He was tired and I was too but determination kept us going. I said goodbye to my old neighborhood as we passed by the place where my little guy and I had first met. The two of us walked hand in hand to the bus terminal that was quite far out of town. Sure, we could’ve taken the bus there but I was short on cash and I didn’t even know if I’d have enough for two tickets or when or how I would get more. The sky was dark blue when the two of us made it to the terminal. The wind had picked up and it was nice to finally be indoors for a while. A bus had just left a few minutes before we arrived but the terminal was still filled with people sitting patiently much like you’d do at an airport when your flight is delayed for hours at a time. The two of us sat down to rest for a while and watch TV as I counted my money. The place had an enormous flat screen TV mounted on the wall to entertain bored and waiting people. Somebody had put it on the news channel and of course the big story was still Matteo Torres getting sentenced to death by a federal jury.

“May damnation take him!” I grumbled as his face was plastered on TV for the millionth time.

I couldn’t imagine somebody shooting my kid mercilessly, and yet my kid was named after that very man.

“No! The death penalty is so wrong!” Lil Matt protested with a mixture of anger and sadness in his voice, “Jesus said to love your enemies, not kill them! Nobody is beyond temptation but nobody is beyond redemption either!”

I didn’t speak. I couldn’t utter out anything worthy of being spoken, especially not to the kid. They proceeded to show reactions from survivors and victims’ families most of them were saddened and angry by the sentence and would’ve much preferred life without the possibility of parole.

“Capital punishment is so barbaric,” the kid went on in a calmer tone of voice, “and how to you expect someone to pay for their crimes if they’re not around to be held accountable for them? The highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you know nothing about.”

“I never thought about it like that,” I admitted, still impressed with how wise and knowledgeable that little boy really was.

“He left a mark on those people that will last a lifetime, he shouldn’t get off easy by not having to carry that for the rest of his life either.”

“You’re right. And just because he isn’t sorry now doesn’t he’ll never have remorse. I feel sorry for him, for having ruined his life. He’s my age for God’s sake!”

Sure, I had to deal with very crappy circumstances out there on the streets, but I had my health, my freedom and my life.

“Just because you can’t have a new beginning doesn’t mean you can’t have a new ending,” Lil Matt told me in a calm voice as he gazed up at me.

I held him tightly against me as I began getting emotional. I closed my eyes and ran my fingers through his messy hair as I let a tear escape for the first time. I zoned out from my environment completely. Matteo and I were the only ones left in the room. The TV fell silent in the background and the heartache melted away momentarily.

“Did you name me after him?” he asked me after an extended moment of silence.

* * *

In the night my little boy started having a fever as we waited for the next early morning bus. He was boiling up and it didn’t seem like it was going to break any time soon. The whole thing had come on suddenly shortly after he’d fallen asleep in my arms. I’d watched some TV along with a few other errant vagabonds loitering around the bus station either wanting to get out of the cold or hoping that the next bus would finally bring them to where they were going. A bus had arrived just before 2 a.m. but the majority of the occupants had immediately gotten onto a connecting bus. Lil Matt and I still had to wait a few more hours for ours to get us out of town since we’d missed the last one the day before.

After a while I was beginning to get worried about the kid. If I used the money I had for the bus to take him to the hospital we wouldn’t be able to get out of town and I didn’t know if he could wait to see a doctor in another city somewhere else. He didn’t whine or complain that he was in pain but it was pretty obvious that he was suffering. An older lady with no name sitting close by got me a cold wet towel to put over his head for a while but it did little good. Each minute that went by seemed like an hour so finally I got up and asked the few people in the room if they had anything like Advil or Tylenol to at least enable Lil Matt to comfortably fall asleep for a few hours until that damn fever broke once and for all.

“There’s a pharmacy open all night a few blocks down on the east end of Birmingham Avenue,” one dude sitting across the room told me, “it shouldn’t take long to walk there but you should bring your kid with you. Don’t leave him here unattended or else the staff will call the police.”

“Thank you,” I said blankly as I returned to my seat and got ready for another mini journey.”

“Here are a few coins, that’s all I can spare.”

“You really don’t need to do that.”

“Don’t you worry sweetheart, you don’t owe me a thing. I’ve been there too. Leave your stuff here, we won’t rob you but at least take the kid with you so the pharmacist can at least look at him just in case his condition worsens and he needs a doctor.”

I gave the man my most sincere salutations, took his four dollars and put it in the bag that I carried everywhere with me, slouched a weak Matteo over arm and walked out the door into the frigid night. I wasn’t a big fan of leaving the few things I had with a bunch of strangers in a bus terminal where they could literally just disappear with everything but getting Matteo some help was more important than any of those trivial things. I wasn’t incredibly familiar with this particular section of the city but I’d been given directions before I left so I found my way around eventually. I felt rather uneasy wandering around at night in a high crime neighborhood with a sick boy knowing that it would only be a matter of time before Ed Gerber put a hit on my head. I knew he’d killed people before even though no proof of that had ever been found.

“Where are we going?” Lil Matt asked me in a sleepy and pained voice.

“The pharmacy honey,” I replied softly, “so you can feel better very soon.”

“I feel really awful mom.”

“I know hon, but I promise that help is on the way. Just hang on.”

With every car that went by I felt more and more uneasy. They were far and few between but I felt particularly anxious knowing that the sicko was lurking somewhere out there. After a few minutes it started raining too, which only made the atmosphere even colder. I’d left the blankets at the station so I couldn’t wrap up Matteo to, at the very least, keep him dry. Finally I found Birmingham Avenue and sped up my pace as much as I could when I saw a big green sign that read Pharmacy Open 24/7 in the distance. Seeing that gave me minor relief. At least I knew I was close. I only had a few more blocks to walk down before I got there. By that time we were both soaked in rainwater but that was a minor inconvenience in the greater scope of things.

“We’re almost there,” I reassured Matteo, “just a few more minutes.”

As I was nearing the last stretch of sidewalk before the pharmacy, a car came up behind me and slowed down once the headlights were on me. I glanced behind me quickly just in case it was the police or something but it only took a fraction of a second for me to realize that it was Ed Gerber and his men. Screams rang out and then gunfire erupted. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with my arms around Matteo to break his fall but it was already too late. Lil Matt had a gunshot wound to the neck and I had a minor flesh wound to the hand. The rest of the fury of bullets had sprayed the window of the shop nearby not injuring anyone but nonetheless the damage was done. The car then sped away into the darkness. I knew by the look of Lil Matt’s throat wound that he wouldn’t make it. You couldn’t survive something like that. The street light on the other side of the road gave a gentle glow amidst the pouring rain. I kneeled over my little boy and held him tightly in his last moments. The rain washed away the blood, making it disappear in the current going to the nearest storm drain.

“Don’t worry about me mama,” he coughed up through the blood, “I’m going home.”

“No! Matteo!” I cried, “Stay with me! Please! Just stay with me!”

“This is just my temporary home. Heaven is my final destination.”

“Matteo, this right here is where you belong, here with me, stay with me hon!”

A lightning strike somewhere behind me lit up the whole sky like a supernova as my beloved Lil Matt took his last breath. The thunder rolled soon thereafter making such a deafening sound that it seemed that the entire universe was falling apart. Even heaven itself appeared to shake in anger and pain as the worst of the storm was underway. The wind didn’t whistle, it made a ripping sound and the rain fell down so hard that I couldn’t see on the other side of the street. Power lines came crashing down somewhere nearby and the street filled up with a few inches of water. The pain I felt resonating right through my core was a billion times more powerful than any violent storm ever could be. My little boy had just died in my arms because of a sin I’d committed. I didn’t even feel the gunshot wound I’d sustained to the hand so much my heart ached. Everything was irrelevant as I prayed that God would let me die too. I let my head hit the pavement of the sidewalk as I gave up. Matteo was dead, it was over.

I closed my eyes and prayed that the rain would just wash me away. The only thing I could do was breathe in and out and take things moment by moment, second by second. Numb was the only thing I had to offer. There was nothing else inside my soul as the ocean came down from the sky drop by drop. I don’t know how long I was there on the sidewalk with my little boy’s lifeless body but it was long enough for the clouds to clear up and the sky to turn a medium blue before somebody arrived. First it was a police car with two officers slowly approaching, as if they were afraid that the dead bodies would open their eyes when they touched them. When the older officer saw that I was still breathing he yelled to the younger guy to call an ambulance. It was only a few moments before one came racing down the street with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing. The officers asked me questions during that short time but I was too numb to provide them with a coherent answer.

My hand only needed a few stitches and a small bandage, unlike my heart, which was never going to be whole again. Nobody asked questions about where I’d gotten the kid. The story went along that he was my boy and his death certificate said his name Matteo Zaur Ross-Carter, and stated that his mother was Gwendolyn Monica Ross-Carter and father unknown. A church I’d never heard of volunteered to pay to get my Lil Matt cremated. Afterwards they handed me a little blank wooden box with a pile of ashes in a bag inside. I swore I’d seen such boxes at the dollar store when Matteo and I had went shopping just a few days prior. The church paid for my medical bills too and offered to pay to get my little boy properly buried too but I declined that offer. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye yet, even though goodbye had already been said. Since I had nothing left except my backpack and what was inside I took out my scarf, wrapped up the box of ashes in it and placed it securely in my backpack which I now wore on my stomach and not my back.

It was insane for me to think that my scarf would keep Matteo warm because Matteo was no longer but I couldn’t help it. Previously I’d laugh when I was wandering downtown and saw these adult men pushing strollers with plastic dolls mimicking actual children but maybe that man’s child had died or had been taken away and he never got over it. Maybe that was his way to grieve. Maybe doing that helped him heal. Who was I to judge them for how they coped with their loss? I had just lost my little boy too after all. After the numbness finally left me everything hit me at once; anger, sadness, the whole package. The world outside might’ve been sound asleep at night but a storm was brewing up inside of me. I held on to my backpack like a pregnant woman would wrap her arms around her stomach as I let myself slide down the brick wall of an abandoned building until I hit the ground. My tears fell like heavy rain as the pain hit me straight to the core like being stabbed repeatedly. Being stabbed was probably preferable to what I was feeling too.

I wasn’t even afraid that Ed Gerber would come back to finish me off. In fact I prayed that he would just so I could join my son again. I removed the little rectangular box from my backpack and held it for a while, taking the time to feel the smooth texture underneath my fingers. I rummaged through my bag aimlessly with my other hand when I came across some coloring markers I’d gotten from the dollar store for Lil Matt but he’d never gotten the chance to use them. I ripped open the package and began scribbling whatever came to mind on the little box. I wrote his name on top in bold golden ink and told him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me in all colors of the rainbow. I wished he could come back to me and give me peace because no matter which way I tried to put things inside my head, my mind was never at ease.

Only the dim moonlight reflecting off the water gave me a little glow so I could see what I was doing but I was mostly blinded by my tears, hence it didn’t serve much of a purpose. After I was finished drawing my box I wiped my tears and looked at it. I’d drawn patterns of little hearts on every side of the box in all colors the markers came in. I contemplated digging a hole and putting Matteo back where I found him, in the dirt by the waters. I was on the other side now, hanging out around the pipes because some unknown people were loitering on the other side and I couldn’t stand to be around anyone. Holding my little box I fell to my knees in the dirt, out of breath and begging for the pain and loneliness to leave me alone. The oxygen burned my lungs as it went in and all I could do to relieve myself from the constant ache of heartbreak was scream. I screamed into the night until my lungs gave out, quieting ever other voice in the distance. The only sound left in the air were the waves coming and going, making a gentle periodic splash.

When I saw headlights approaching I ran for the hills. I didn’t want it to be the police who would probably only give me more heartaches. Considering the kind of screams I’d been uttering, it wouldn’t’ve surprised me if someone had decided to call because I sounded in distress, like I was dying, but that probably wasn’t too far from the truth. I escaped before I got to see who it was. I saw no flashing lights but I didn’t care either way. I put the little box back in my bag and held it tightly against me as I wandered around aimlessly for a good part of the night. Some sick and twisted part of me was hoping to find Ed Gerber, or that he would find me, but I only crossed a handful of homeless old men. Finally I made it back around to my neighborhood just before dawn was about to break, exhausted and in pain, so I let myself slide down the brick wall onto the cold sidewalk. I clutched my bag over my stomach before unzipping it and holding my little boy one more time.

As I admired the finished product of what I’d done with the markers I noticed a shadow slowly coming my way underneath the glow of the streetlight on the other side of the road. I couldn’t’ve cared less who it was honestly. I was so done with life and with everything. I wasn’t asking for anyone to have mercy on my breakable heart because it was beginning to harden.

Pain had always done that to me. It didn’t strengthen me, it didn’t encourage me, it didn’t positively change me; all it ever did was corrupt me. But then again, I’d never really known pain up until Matteo died in my arms. There were no words that could describe the agony I was in. I kept going back and forth between unrelenting sadness to anger that made my blood boil to the point that I thought I could destroy the whole world. Somewhere in between all of that there was nothing but apathy and disgust that made it to the surface.

“Hi Gwendolyn,” the girl said before hesitantly stepping out of the shadows when I didn’t respond or even lift my head up to look.

She came and sat down next to me. She appeared to be timid and not the type to dive into unknown and potentially dangerous situations. Yet, she seemed to have a good idea of how I was feeling, what had happened and what was in that little box I was clutching on my lap.

“You don’t know me, but I know about you,” she spoke gently and cautiously after a long moment of silence, “my name is Tamara and my father’s men are responsible for the murder of your child.”

“What the hell are you doing here and what to you want from me?” I muttered out through my teeth in an angry tone of voice.

“I came to say that I’m sorry,” she went on in a mousy tone of voice, “I know that it doesn’t mean anything to you but once he found out that the little boy is the one who got killed he felt awful.”

“You’re right, that’s meaningless to me.”

“He wasn’t around when I was growing up because my mother ran away when she found out that she was pregnant but we got to know each other when he was in prison and now he says that he couldn’t live a day without me.”

“That’s easy for him to say.”

“If you hadn’t sent him to prison, I might’ve never gotten to know my dad the way I did.”

I didn’t speak. The numbness had returned to me and the only thing that could override it was my anger and I didn’t want to allow myself to have an outburst in front of Lil Matt, be it that Lil Matt had been reduced to a pile of dust inside a box from the dollar store.

“If you hadn’t done what you did, he probably never would’ve known about me,” the girl who was about my age went on, “I found out about this when I found him crying in the living room. He told me everything and begged me to not try to find you just in case you would attempt to kill me to make things even. As much as I don’t want you to do that, I would understand why you’d do it. I know this is something else that’s meaningless to you, but for whatever its worth, I don’t believe my father would’ve tried to kill you if he’d known you had a child.”

“He wasn’t even my kid,” I muttered apathetically, “I found him by the riverbank one day and he begged me to keep him. Now look at what ended up of him.”

“I can’t tell you how so deeply sorry I am Gwendolyn! I know that it can’t bring him back, but I called the police department’s tip line from a pay phone and ratted out my father. The police have probably already arrested him by now.”

“You know, my druggy friends and I named the kid after the Mapleford shooter because he didn’t even know what his own name was. When he confronted me about it I lied saying he was named after a president. Had I known I was going to keep him, I probably would’ve picked any other name. Anything else. Sorta like that song A Boy Named Sue by Johnny Cash.”

“Considering the love you gave him I don’t think he would mind.”

“I don’t think he would’ve cared either way. At the bus station not that long ago, I went on about how the mass shooter deserved the death penalty and he freaked out telling me how wrong that was on so many levels. Had it not been for his words wise way beyond his age, I don’t think I would’ve had much of a problem going right ahead and killing you and your father and a bunch of other people just to make the world pay.”

“What made you change your mind?”

“If he didn’t want the killer to die how could I go around killing for him? What kind of person does that?”

At that moment I broke down crying. Ed Gerber’s daughter put her arm around my shoulder and held me tightly against her.

“Even though he’s long gone, he’s still with you,” she whispered softly.

“I know,” I choked up, “I can feel him in the wind.”

“No matter what anybody says, it doesn’t undo the pain you’re feeling nor will it bring you any comfort because you already know all there is to be said and repeating it again would just be cheap. But I’m gonna tell you to never stop honoring that child’s life for as long as you live. He’s not around to make a legacy for himself, so please let him have a good one.”

“Thanks, Tamara or whatever your name is. Your words are reminiscent of what was said on TV the one and only time Lil Matt and I watched it together at the bus stop.”

Tamara and I ended up spending the rest of the night out there on the sidewalk holding and comforting each other. I fell asleep mostly out of exhaustion and when the morning came again in just a few hours time my emotions went back and forth between a million and it drained me of the little energy I had left. I had been destitute long before any of this. What to do? Where to go? Tamara, a young woman who had been raised in a privileged home and had never lacked anything, had stayed with me the whole night right there on the street. I hadn’t slept for very long because I felt hungover from the lack of sleep and the morning sun was well on its way, climbing up into the sky overhead. I got up, sore and sick, and the two of us walked to the nearest bus stop just down the road.

“Where were you going with Matteo before you left the bus stop to take him to the pharmacy?” she asked me as we waited for the next bus.

“I never got the chance to find out,” I replied with no emotion, “I just wanted to get away. I don’t know what would’ve happened to him if I’d just left him somewhere, but at the same time I wouldn’t trade a single moment I spent with him for the world.”

“Do you want to finish the journey you started?”

“Does it make a difference? I don’t have a dime to my name and camping out in abandoned buildings with the remains of my kid in my bag isn’t my fancy either. I don’t know what I want, I’m not sure I ever have anyway.”

“I don’t really have anywhere to go either. I moved out of my mother’s house a long time ago and I have a few hundred thousand dollars in this bag.”

“In cash?”

“Yeah, I took it before I turned in my dad. I know that makes me a criminal just as much as he is but I’d still prefer that you have this money than the government. Where do you wanna go?”

I slouched back in silence on the bench as we waited for the next bus to arrive that morning. The cloud formation in the sky floating our way oddly reminded me of the day I found Lil Matt by the riverbank. The wind blew gently through my dirty and unruly hair as bus #530 came to a halt right in front of us. Tamara and I briefly glanced at each other as we got off the bench and boarded public transit. The bus was mostly empty being right before the morning rush so I took advantage of it by putting my feet up on the seat in front of me and stretching my aching muscles. The bus went around the neighborhood which meant we passed by the river where I took one last glance at the polluted waters and the abandoned construction project on the other side.

“I heard that the junkies who hung out under the bridge finally heard the mermaid last night,” Tamara said blandly as she looked out the window with me.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they ever came to see a little Russian kid aimlessly walking the polluted shore looking for something he couldn’t find too,” I muttered, “he taught me how to love through all the hate.”

Tamara didn’t respond. That was probably the best thing she could’ve done under the circumstances. A few stops later a couple of people came and went but the big rush was still yet to come.

“Did you decide where we’re going?”

“Home.”

Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume Four: Home (Original Version)

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.”

“Thanks hon.”

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.”

“Nope.”

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?”

“What?”

“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.”

“Thank you.”

“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!”

Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume Four: The Next Six Days

Day 1 — Sunday

It was 5:59 a.m. when my cellphone rang. On my day off. Sure, I was off duty, but I was still on call. Not for very long. My black iPhone 4S was always right there on my night table for when duty called in the middle of the night. I had been in Port Hope merely a few weeks and had only been working at Mount Hope Trauma Center for a week and a half as a trauma nurse. I’d been flown some 3000 miles just to get the position as part of a new initiative to hire new staff for a new section of the treatment center. I’d been out of nursing school for a couple of years, had worked as a nurse for a few more years, had recently gotten married, bought my first new car, was still in debt beyond words, yet work is what ruled my life. I spent most of my days in the hospital, basically nursing the dead back to life.

“Yes?” I answered the phone, already knowing what I was about to be told.

I knew all about being called at all hours of the night, doing grocery shopping and having to leave everything in the cart right there in the middle of the aisle, having to speed through traffic like a madman to get to work to save someone’s life. But at the end of the day it was all worth it.

“There’s an emergency at the hospital,” my boss spoke urgently, “you need to come right away.”

“Count on me,” I muttered, “I’ll be right there.”

My husband Corey turned to look at me when I grunted loudly and momentarily let my head flop on the pillow for just one more minute. When I opened my eyes again it was six o’clock. And so I got up in a jiffy, stripped off my pajamas making them fly all over the little room and putting on my scrubs, grabbing my car keys and bolting out the door without anything else. It might’ve been October, but Port Hope had a cold northern climate and without a coat even the ten second journey to my Pontiac was frigid. I hadn’t even said bye to my husband before I barged out the door. A light blue sky illuminated everything in the neighborhood. A considerable amount of traffic was already flooding the streets, mostly people who had to open something up for seven o’clock. After having extensively studied science and nursing as well as having only worked in hospitals during my adult years, there was no thinking required on my behalf to mentally prepare myself for whatever I was about to face at work.

I’d seen people be shot, lose limbs, be in incredible car crashes and still miraculously survive unsurvivable circumstances. I was indeed a believer in miracles; I helped make them happen. I loved seeing a patient smile at me, seeing them wave as they walk out of the hospital alive and kicking, and being told that I had helped them through a difficult time. My mother had always told me that the magnitude of a job could only be measured by the depths of its rewards and the only thing I could say about that was that my job was definitely one of the most fulfilling things in my life. Being around tragedy all day wasn’t that bad after all. I had peace of mind knowing that at the end of the day I could go home and tell my husband that I had saved someone’s life.

York Avenue was rather clogged up, with mostly police cars, journalists, and people with a multitude of tense looks on their faces. Something had obviously went down since I had last turned on the news, turned on the radio or opened up a newspaper. I parked the red Pontiac in the staff parking lot and barged in through the door. I was immediately greeted by just under a dozen police officers with some intense looks on their faces like they meant business. I swallowed hard and walked up to them, waiting for them to tell me what was going on or instruct me on what to do next.

“Are you Lina Anna?” one cop asked me in a stern tone of voice.

“Yes,” I spoke softly, having completely transformed into meek and compassionate nurse since walking through the doors.

“Please show us some identification, then Sgt. Murdoch will search you and you can go through.”

“Alright, here you go.”

I showed the officers my identification, and let them pat me down quickly before they let me go through and meet up with Dr. Allen so he could give me a little heads up on what was all the commotion and heightened security. Shortly after the officers were finished with me, some of the other new nurses walked in behind me, having been called around the same time I had. For the first time in my career I felt a surge of anxiety. What had gone on that was so bad, that was so horrible? I swallowed hard again before meeting up with the doctors and the other nurses in the meeting room down the hallway. Dr. Eric Allen handed me a cup of coffee as he closed the door behind me, also with a very serious look on his face.

“As some of you might’ve heard, there was a shooting at the Lakeside Mall yesterday,” he spoke in a slow voice, “and subsequently there was a shootout between the police and the suspect in which multiple were injured.”

I had missed that on the news obviously, because it was the first time I’d heard of such a thing. I gulped down my cup of coffee in just a few sips and quickly got ready to relieve the overnight nurses of their duties. I take it they had been called some twelve hours prior, when the shooting had originally occurred.

“Nikki, Lina, Phil and Robyn, y’all are on the sixth floor,” Dr. Eric said softly, “everyone else on the eighth floor. Dr. Roberto Ng will be arriving at any moment to replace me.”

The elevator made a ding noise as I stepped out on the sixth floor. Just down the hallway there were eight police officers guarding a single door. The other nurses and I approached quickly as the trauma nurses about to finish their shifts were going to fill us in on what to expect since we had yet to be running into the emergency room and stitching up gunshot wounds.

“Come here Lina,” Maxine, the head nurse, instructed me as he led me through the door with heavy police presence.

I followed her in silence, nodding at the officers on my way in. Two more officers were in the room, slouched against the wall and looking at the young man laying limp in the bed. Most of his face was bandaged up and most of all available hospital machines were hooked up to him. He was even cuffed to the bed even though it seemed like he wasn’t even still alive at that point. Maxine told me that he’d just come out of surgery and was in a deep coma; one that nobody knew if he was going to get out of. Obviously the young man was the suspect of all the violence in Port Hope, a generally very quiet community, but he looked like he was just a kid quite frankly. So far six people had been confirmed dead in the commotion, with another seven in critical condition. That was at Mount Hope Trauma Center; there were three other hospitals in the city, and I didn’t know how many people they had.

“As you can see he’s barely alive,” Maxine spoke in a tired voice, “you won’t be doing much other than watching him and taking his vitals and giving him more medication every hour until he wakes up. You’ll have to change the bandages on his neck and abdomen as well as clean the wound every three hours.”

“What’s his name?” I asked, puzzled more than anything else.

“It’s Vadim Pushkin,” she replied, “he’s six days shy of his eighteenth birthday, one that he might not even see because the police shot him.”

Maxine saluted me before walking out. I pulled up a chair and sat next to the bed. On the table there was a medical file for him but it was incomplete as the boy had been admitted a few hours ago and had just come out of life saving surgery. Dr. Ng was supposed to come in and run some tests on him once he arrived. Although I couldn’t see much of his face, Vadim Pushkin looked young for his age. He was quite frankly just a kid. He’d been shot in the neck by police in a firefight that ultimately put him in the state he was in. His left eye was sutured shut, if there was even an eye left under there, and multiple tubes were in his mouth. His left arm was in a cast from the elbow up to the fingers and had multiple gunshot wounds to the abdomen and right leg. His skin was depleted of color, with only his thick black overgrown hair left to contrast against it and the bandages turning red.

The two officers in the room looked bored as they both paced around the room. They wanted to question Vadim but nobody knew for sure if he was even going to wake up. For the first couple of hours there was no activity at all. I cleaned up Vadim and changed his bandages when the time came but he was still deep in a coma. I hadn’t spoken to the two officers and they hadn’t even spoken to each other except for when it came time to switch shifts. A single officer came in and had much of the same face as the other two had. When my shift came to an end I nodded at the young green-eyed cop and went on my way. I grabbed another cup of coffee before making a brief stop to the washroom, grabbing my things, and walking back to my car. Outside the weather had gotten much warmer, but the whole day had gone by and I hadn’t even seen it at all.

Back at the apartment Corey was gone. He’d left a note on the kitchen table saying that he’d be picking up food for the two of us if I got home before he came back. Generally I told him about how my days went, without mentioning specific people due to confidentiality of course, but if I sewed up someone who had been shot I’d tell him how it went. But not tonight, I thought to myself. I had a hard time digesting what I had seen during my day. The kid who was in critical condition who had to be monitored 24/7 had went on a shooting rampage. Lucky me, I had arrived home at around the same time that the news started. And of course, the tragedy was the only thing consuming the airways. I quickly turned it off, me who usually liked to watch the news when I had the chance, but that chance was often rare.

“Hey there!” Corey greeted me joyfully as he walked in through the door with a large deluxe pizza (with no mushrooms!) and came to sit down next to me, “You aren’t watching the news, what’s up with that?”

“Oh, I’m just tired,” I dismissed the question, “it’s been a long day.”

“I take it you treated some of them,” he spoke in a low voice, obviously referring to the shooting.

I simply nodded. I had treated him, and I didn’t want to talk about it. That brief exchange concluded the communication between my husband and I for the rest of the evening.

Day 2 — Monday

Monday mornings. I never met a single person who liked those. On the bright side though, my brain had remained in work mode from the day before. It wasn’t like having spent two days laying on the couch and eating pizza and then having to give it all you got for a shift that lasted twelve hours and sometimes more. That was hard, I will not lie about that. Because of the crisis the hospital was running short on staff and I’d be working irregular hours until things calmed down, however long that was going to take. It wasn’t uncommon for nurses and even though I hadn’t been one for eternity, it didn’t particularly bother me. There was nothing that a good cup of coffee, or a few, couldn’t fix in the morning!

At the hospital that morning it was much of the same routine. Different officers, same procedures. Of course the media had gotten a hold of the news story that the gunman was in the same hospital as some of his victims and that had prompted backlash to some degree, but there were more reporters in the parking lot than I had ever seen at one time. I had been strictly told to ignore them, so I did. I walked up to the staff lounge, grabbed an overly large cup of coffee, did my little routine as I quickly gulped down the java and went to my post, still Vadim’s bedside. I had seen terrible things working as a trauma nurse but I had never previously seen someone in such awful shape in such a deep coma. I didn’t quite know what to make of that yet. No patient of mine had ever died. I knew I couldn’t save all of them, but the first cut was always the deepest.

To my surprise Maxine was still wandering the halls upstairs looking exhausted, like she hadn’t slept in over a century. She greeted me and briefly stopped me in the hallway, telling me that there would be free counseling sessions for nurses for a couple of weeks if I was interested. I had probably seen the paper advertising it in the staff lounge but had overlooked it with my regular routine. It was pretty much always the same. It had gotten to the point that it did itself. I also crossed Dr. Ng in the hallway who was finally going home after working more than twenty hours straight but he had concluded that Vadim Pushkin should wake up, and soon, because he was young and he was healthy. If it was the case, I’d probably be the first one to get to talk to him. As a nurse I always tried to remain optimistic, but in the back of my mind I knew too well that not everything turns out the way they are supposed to.

Certain things are supposed to turn out certain ways, but sometimes they don’t. You can only hope that they do. Sometimes the things that happen are out of our control, and sometimes the only reason why something happened was because it seemed like a good idea to the person who set it in motion at the time, no matter what the end result may be. Sometimes the reason behind something isn’t a reason at all, but an illusion, a facade, one that we cannot see past so we must try to make sense of it the best we can under the circumstances. All one can really do in life is do what they can with what they have to get where they want to go, and enjoy the ride along the way, because life might as well end in an unforeseen blink of an eye. And just like that, it’s gone, and you can never get it back again.

“Wow, no more tubes,” I exclaimed somewhat optimistically as I entered Vadim’s room and noticed that the apparatus inserted into his mouth had been removed.

“I don’t know what you did Lina,” the nurse said to me as she was leaving, “but his condition improved a whole lot.”

“I’m telling you that I didn’t do anything,” I muttered, slightly taken aback by the sudden progress in his condition.

“Then you must have magic powers,” she replied, “the boy should be dead.”

That was rather accurate. Not a whole lot of people survive a blast of bullets like that. It takes only one to be fatal, yet some people survive two dozens at once. In a certain way, it’s not always a bad thing that life doesn’t necessarily turn out the way it’s supposed to be. But in a case such as that the moral dilemma between him and his victims still remained. Why should he live and not them? I did not know the answer to that question. What I did know, however, was that I had taken and oath in which I stated that I would treat all my patients equally, regardless of what they had done to land themselves in my unit. It didn’t matter if a person was the victim or the perpetrator, in an establishment such as a hospital, everyone had the same right to life. No questions asked. No points to prove. And I agreed with that.

The majority of the late morning and early afternoon was highly uneventful. I did my regular duties and watched the cops come and go as they switched shifts. One young guy that came in later on was particularly talkative. He spoke at length about everything ranging from the aging infrastructure to the different cloud formations in the sky to what kind of music he and his colleagues listened to in the police cruisers while they were on patrol last week near the shipping docks to each particular marking on the calico cat he had waiting for him at home. I smiled at him as he went on and on but his partner looked rather annoyed. I figured the young officer did that constantly. After days and days of that, yeah, I’d be annoyed too. But for me it was a welcomed distraction since my patient was pretty much mute.

The only thing that interrupted the young officer’s upbeat chatter was Vadim’s heart monitor that started beeping out of control. All the cops lurking around the doorway seemed to panic at the sound. They wanted that guy alive no matter what that consisted of. They wouldn’t accept we did the best we could as an answer. Immediately Vadim was administered medication to bring his blood pressure down. His condition had stabilized a considerable amount overnight but he still wasn’t awake. After a few more hours Dr. Kelly came in to look at Vadim’s wounds when I cleaned them. His jaw wound was no longer bleeding which was a big bonus because he had lost so much blood and an urgent appeal was sent out for more blood donations in the area since many of his victims had also badly needed blood transfusions. Vadim’s face looked peaceful in the midst of his otherworldly sleep.

“So, Karla isn’t exactly fond of that new cat food recipe,” the officer hesitantly resumed talking after an extended silence, “so I switched to buying the organic kind from the store down on Main Street.”

It wasn’t long before the chatter resumed in full swing. I grinned at the cop’s comments but his partner sighed loudly, purposely to make his exasperation known to his chatty coworker. Unfortunately for him the young officer didn’t seem to take notice and kept going on and on. I aimlessly paced around the room since I had been ordered to not leave Vadim without medical supervision at all times. Even on his way out when his shift ended he kept on talking on and on much to the displeasure of the other officer. Two other officers entered the room next and did much of the same sitting around since Vadim wasn’t moving. One officer asked me about his condition since they had barely been briefed on what they were heading into when they arrived. I answered as best as I could since nobody really know how the living dead boy was feeling since he couldn’t tell us.

I anxiously paced around the room for a while as I looked at the clock. My shift was almost over. I was hoping to have a chat with my husband. It seemed that in recent weeks we had barely spoken at all. The police officers seemed to want to get on with their lives too but at the same time we were only answering to the needs of the jobs we had sworn to do consistently and with conviction. A whole lot of things were going on through my mind as I thought about coffee among a multitude of other things but my moment was interrupted much like the young chatty officer’s had; by Vadim needing attention. He had grunted and exhaled loudly, like someone who was in deep pain. Both the police officers and I rushed to his bedside to see if he was conscious or not. Sure enough, he was waking up.

“He’s waking up!” one officer shouted loudly to the people down the hallway.

Two doctors and an army of nurses came running into the small room. It was a few moments before Vadim opened his one eye that wasn’t sutured shut and looked around the room. Dr. Kelly examined him and asked him questions but the boy didn’t respond at all. He didn’t seem to be quite lucid just yet. His eye wandered back and forth around the room, seemingly searching for something familiar but not quite being able to process everything in the state he was currently in. The doctor had barely finished speaking when the officers started interrogating a Vadim that was still in a daze, mainly asking him if there was still a threat to the public since there had been some reports of a second shooter opening fire but nobody knew if it was someone associated with Vadim or a copycat shooter or a completely separate incident. Vadim wasn’t able to speak nor had he been read his rights prior to the cops beginning their tirade of accusations against him.

“Guys, stop immediately!” Dr. Kelly angrily shouted in a loud tone of voice, “He’s on some strong painkillers and cannot even speak at this point! Save this for the morning! Let him rest!”

But the cops didn’t leave him alone. They continued to probe the young man despite the fact that he obviously had no idea what was going on around him. Vadim was handed a pen a pad of paper so he could write the answers to the questions because his jaw injury still prevented him from speaking. For a little while, a confused and disoriented Vadim scribbled aimlessly and incoherently before finding the right words to say that he wanted to rest. He badly wanted to sleep, he even went as far as circling the sentence rest please but he didn’t appear to fully understand the rest of the questions. I don’t think he even knew he was in the hospital or why he was there. He asked why his right hand was cuffed to the bed but he didn’t seem to understand the answer he was given. Before I left my shift I had to sign yet another confidentiality agreement stating that whatever confession or other word coming out of Vadim’s mouth could not be repeated under any circumstances whatsoever. I had no choice but to agree.

And then I went home after doing about an hour of overtime until the police let Vadim rest indefinitely before attempting to question him again. Corey seemed to have figured out that the gunman was the person I was treating because he was overly soft compared to the way he usually was with me once I got home from work. He asked me if I wanted to talk about it as soon as I sat down at the kitchen table to have a snack and some coffee. No, I did not want to talk about it because I still hadn’t digested the whole thing. As a nurse I was a very compassionate person who loved to nurse the needy back to health but I was facing a moral dilemma in not only treating someone who had committed a horrible act but I also had to think about the fact that he might as well face execution if convicted.

There was always a certain amount of love and affection involved in caring for others. Healing someone and then watch then be injected with poison was a bizarre thing to contemplate and despite that Vadim definitely deserved a harsh sentence for his actions I did not believe in capital punishment. I never had, and Vadim Pushkin did not change my opinion about that. Everyone had a right to life in this country, even him. Maybe treating him made me want him to live so much more but I also had to deal with my feelings of guilt regarding treating him after also witnessing the destruction that he caused. Maybe telling Corey about my feelings without going into specifics would’ve been a positive thing for me as my thoughts weighed deeply on me after spending the large majority of my day in the middle of what was bothering me.

Day 3 — Tuesday

Another early morning shift. At least I possibly had a conversation with Vadim to look forward to. Or maybe not. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to talk, or maybe he wouldn’t want to. Maybe he’d tell me that he was proud of what he’d done or tell me to go screw myself. Or maybe we’d have a nice long chat since both me and another nurse were assigned to him now that he was awake. I got the day started early so I could actually taste my coffee as I drank it but also to catch up on what was going on before I actually had to start working in the middle of it. I hadn’t spoken to Corey much and hadn’t said a word about work to him. He hadn’t said much to me either. He knew that when I remained silent it was because I wanted the silence.

At the hospital there were now five officers in Vadim’s room. A skinny teenage boy that was tied to his bed and suffering from multiple gunshot wounds didn’t need a truckload of cops surrounding him at all times. When I walked into the room he was still sleeping and another young nurse named Adrienne was already at his bedside. I got the impression that he had slept all night and hadn’t said a word by the look on the officers’ faces. Their demeanors were intimidating since many of them frowned angrily as they silently looked at each other. I greeted everyone by nodding my head and continued on with what I was supposed to do. There was an eerie quiet in the room with only the sound of my footsteps as I walked around and more noise down the hallway. At around eight that morning the doctor on call came in and checked on Vadim before any of his other patients.

Vadim woke up once the doctor began to speak loudly and unlike the first time he woke up after being heavily sedated and in a coma, he looked scared and nervous. His eye darted across the room, only seeing police officers no matter where his gaze landed. His blood pressure went through the roof again and he had to be given medication to relax so he didn’t go into cardiac arrest after all the trauma he had recently been through. The doctor must’ve had a harsh word with the police at some point because they didn’t attack him with questions as soon as that tired brown eye opened up. They gave Vadim the chance to speak first but he kept looking around the room not knowing what was going on.

“You should have died,” the doctor told Vadim.

That was probably not the best thing you could tell someone who was just regaining consciousness but the shocked and terrified expression on Vadim’s face didn’t change at the words the doctor spoke to him.

“Do you know where you are?” the doctor asked.

Vadim looked around a little and then nodded his head slightly before bursting into tears. It was quite a disheartening sight to see. It didn’t matter if that person was the victim or the perpetrator; that person was my patient and it was my duty to be kind and compassionate to them. I sat by his bedside and held his little hand in mine in hopes to comfort him a little bit but to no avail. He was crying so hysterically that he had to be sedated again for a while. The cops had wanted to ask him some questions about public safety again but they weren’t about to. They only seemed to be angrier that the suspect needed healing of his own. The intense police presence all around me began to make me nervous after a while of them lurking around the place. Less than two hours later Vadim woke up again, and began crying again. The officers weren’t about to waste any more time though, they immediately got on his back.

“Were you the only shooter?”

He nodded his head as he was unable to speak.

“Are there any other threats to public safety?”

He shook his head.

“Are you sure?”

Another nod.

“Here’s a pen and a pad of paper if you’d like to tell us anything.”

I held the pad of paper in place for Vadim to attempt to write as best as he could considering he was nearly immobile in his bed, not to mention cuffed to it. His writings weren’t very coherent but you could clearly make out the words lawyer, vomit, rest, I’m sorry and why? He scribbled all over the page as he tried to write something that wasn’t quite coming out the way he wanted. Eventually he dropped the pen and let out a loud sigh of exasperation.

“You need to vomit?” I asked him.

He nodded his head slightly with an urgent look in his eye.

“Well,” I said in a low and almost embarrassed tone of voice, “you can’t puke because your jaw is wired shut. But I’ll get you something for that, it’s just a side effect of the strong painkillers you’re on.”

“I’ll go get something,” Adrienne almost cut me off as she got up and stormed out the room, “I’ll be right back.”

She was much more anxious than I was around the police trying to nurse the suspect back to life. She came in less than a minute later and gave Vadim yet another cocktail of drugs to take away the side effects of the previous drugs. She barely had time to sit down again before the police started grilling the invalid boy with questions again. LAWYER Vadim wrote on a piece of paper and even circled it when the police kept asking him things, which he didn’t reply to.

“He wants a lawyer,” I said in a mousy voice as the police didn’t seem to get the message, “I think he’s entitled to one during this kind of questioning.”

None of the officers responded to my remark but two of them looked at me menacingly. Then Vadim kept on writing that he wanted to rest; he was tired and beat up and quite frankly wasn’t supposed to be alive after something like that. The cops let him sleep for a while but as soon as he woke up the same routine started up again. He began to cry, the cops switched shifts and the young talkative officer was back. He more than happily officially read Vadim his rights before telling him, probably with more words than was necessary, that he could have a court-appointed lawyer to represent him. I wanted to grin as I thoughts back to all the other things he had previously said the day before. To let go of some anxiety I felt like asking him what Karla thought of the organic cat food, but it was not the time or the place so I kept the thought to myself.

At the end of my shift I reluctantly left. Believe me, I was happy to get away from the huge police presence but I also had to admit to myself that I was worried about Vadim. I was worried about what they might do to him. I knew I could take good care of him, and not that I didn’t trust the other nurses because after all they’d gotten that job because they were competent enough to do it, but I saw the coldness in their faces when they looked at him. I knew thinking too much wasn’t good for me so I did my best to brush off the thought, well knowing that I’d be back in the morning for another round of that. I’d get to care for him again. Soon. I took my time to go back home dreading facing Corey whom I knew wanted to talk to me. Once I walked through the door I was immediately greeted by him waiting for me.

“You’re treating him aren’t you?” he asked immediately, “The shooter?” “Yes,” I admitted.

“I sorta figured that because you get all mousy and shy when you feel guilty.”

I sighed loudly, almost on the verge of tears.

“I don’t know how to reconcile this inside my head,” I muttered out with another loud sigh, “when you see a kid hurt like that you can’t help but feel sorry for him, but then I walk out of that room and see all the pain he caused others. When I look at him I don’t see a mass murderer, a teenage killer, a terrorist, or even the bad guy. And then I walk out of there and ask myself if people would be grateful to me for helping save his life or if they’d be angry.”

Then I put my hand over my face and began to cry. Corey walked towards me slowly not wanting to upset me more, and then wrapped his arms around me.

“At work I don’t think about it because it’s my job,” I went on, “but then when it’s over I’m left to ponder what I did for the past twelve hours. I ask myself why I give him painkillers, why I clean his wounds and why he’s allowed to live but some of his victims aren’t. And then I wonder why I pour my heart out into my job to save him when he might as well be executed.”

Corey squeezed me tighter and attempted to comfort me but in that moment I wasn’t sure anything could be done for me. I contemplated maybe going for those free counselling sessions while they were available if my feelings didn’t go away in the near future.

“You have to treat him Lina,” Corey whispered to me, “you have to.”

“Deep inside my heart I know it’s the right thing to do,” I replied in an exasperated tone of voice, “but I can’t help having second thoughts or anxiety about it.”

“Never forget that I am proud of you Lina and that I look up to you for your service.” “Thanks darling, I really needed to hear that right about now.”

Day 4 — Wednesday

I was already tired when I woke up. Corey and I had stayed up late, just talking about anything that was on our mind. he was still sleeping soundly when I walked out the door. The morning was particularly frigid for the time of the year. It wouldn’t’ve surprised me if there was snow in the forecast for the day. At work it was much of the same police security checkpoints. I was almost getting used to it. I felt a great deal less of stress regarding my job but I felt much more emotional than usual. In the lounge as I had my regular coffee Maxine was telling me that such feelings were normal for the current circumstances we were facing. Some of the other nurses who had treated Vadim and watched over him all night — there were eleven of us including me — had said that they’d had dreams of the nightmarish things they saw when he and some of the victims were rushed in with multiple gunshot wounds. Thus far I had bee lucky to maintain an undisturbed sleep.

Only two officers were in Vadim’s room when I arrived to take over the shift. There was, however, an incredibly heavy police presence in the hallway outside his room. I figured Adrienne hadn’t reacted too well to having to nurse the shooter back to life since she wasn’t the one who assisted me despite that it was the two of us who had been assigned to him. My new partner of a nurse was an older lady named Terese who had never done anything else than be a nurse her entire life. I admired such dedication. I had always wished be able to be at least half the nurse she was at some point during my career. She was very calm compared to Adrienne, but not talkative at all. She barely spoke to me as we both tended to Vadim who seemed annoyed more than anything.

“In just about an hour and a half you’re going to get that apparatus taken out of your mouth so you’ll be able to speak again,” I told him hoping that it would cheer him up.

His face showed no emotion when I spoke. I smiled softly at him in the hope of giving him a bit of encouragement considering he still had a long road to recovery ahead of him without counting the endless legal hurdles he’d have to go through. There was no doubt in my mind that he was doing the best he could to enjoy, if such a thing could be done, his time in the hospital because it would probably be the last time he’d be outside concrete walls and barbwire fences.

“Are you in pain honey?” I asked him.

He shook his head. He did however attempt to make gestures with the hand that was tied to the railing of the bed. His other hand was bandaged up and limp so it wasn’t of much use. I handed him the pen and paper but that wasn’t what he wanted.

“He wants your hand,” Terese told me in her usual soft voice.

Not knowing what else to do I slipped my hand into his and he squeezed it lightly. He let out a light sigh, seemingly one of relief, as I put my other hand over it as well. Where was that kid’s mom? His dad? Anyone? He was completely alone. Nobody had come for him. The nurses were probably the only motherly figures around to comfort him. I sat next to his bed speaking to him softly until the doctor arrived to perform minor surgery on his jaw. The wires were removed and all of the bandages remaining on his face were history as well. I’d still have to clean the multiple stitches on the side of his face but at least I could rest easy knowing another one of my patients would walk out of the hospital alive and well. The sutures were removed from his eye as well revealing a blue eye next to the brown one.

“Here you go young man,” Dr. Ng said pleasantly once the job was over, “almost as good as new! Your jaw will be sore for quite a while so don’t try to put too much pressure on it right now but your prognosis is excellent. You will make a full recovery.”

Vadim seemed unfazed upon hearing that he was expected to recover well. Occasionally he would try to rub his bottom jaw or slightly stick out his tongue but he appeared to be apathetic to everything else. He’d held on to my hand the entire time but he hadn’t spoken to me, or anyone, and the severity of the situation didn’t seem to bother him very much. He hadn’t asked to look at himself in the mirror to see if he was disfigured or plead with the police to call his parents. At first I had thought that maybe he didn’t love them, but on second thoughts maybe they didn’t love him. Whichever it was, I couldn’t help feeling slightly protective of him.

“You have beautiful eyes,” I told him as he glanced in my direction for the first time since the doctor had been finished with him.

“Thank you,” he said as he smirked at me slightly, it was also the first time that I heard his voice, “it’s also good to be able to speak again. That was more frustrating than I can say right now.”

“I can relate, I broke my jaw when I was fourteen, and subsequently I needed two surgeries to correct that.”

“For me it wasn’t so much about the pain, I just wanted to tell that cop to stop talking. God, I never thought he was going to shut up!”

I couldn’t help myself. I cracked up laughing. I covered my mouth with my hand so my outburst wouldn’t attract attention. Vadim chuckled slightly but then winced in pain so I got him some more meds for that. He hesitantly took them orally but thanked me for them afterwards. His jaw was sore that was understandable, but neither his physical injuries nor the impending legal case against him seemed to be what was bothering him. Part of me wanted so badly to be able to help him but I knew that once I got home I’d have to deal with incredible feelings of guilt. Guilt for just going my job; helping someone who needed healing. And that created even more conflict inside my head. Why should I even feel guilty for helping someone, regardless of who they were?

“You look like you’ve got a storm going on inside your head,” Vadim muttered after a few moments of silence on my behalf.

“That’s putting it mildly hon,” I replied sweetly, with a warm smile on my face.

“It’s not gonna kill me to hear what you have to say, plus you only have to spend two more days with me.”

“You’re already getting moved so quickly?”

“Well, that’s what the police want. Of course I have no say in that. I’m going to federal prison on my eighteenth birthday, but I deserve that.”

“I’m so sorry dear. It doesn’t matter what you deserve or don’t deserve, when I see someone in your situation I can’t help but show them compassion.”

“You’re a nice nurse.”

“Thank you.”

I gently and affectionately squeezed his arm. He definitely wasn’t going to get any of that from the correctional officers in prison. If there was even a slight chance of preserving some form of humanity in that young man, the responsibility fell on my shoulders.

“Do you think I’m troubled?” Vadim asked me out of the blue. The question caught me off-guard.

“Troubled?” I asked again.

“Yeah, like messed up,” he said, “and no offense to you lady but you seem to be really distraught.”

I took a deep breath and let out an overly loud sigh.

“I’m going to tell you the truth Vadim,” I spoke gently after a few moments, “it’s hard to see a patient get better so quickly and then have to think about their execution in a couple of years.”

“I’m sorry that my presence makes you feel that way.”

“Life is so precious, and as a nurse I am definitely a lover of life, and the worst possible thing that can happen to a caretaker is see one of their patients… die.”

“I hear ya.”

“But don’t you worry about me. My job is to take care of you and I will, no matter what.”

I went about my business for the rest of the day without a hitch. Terese and I took turns sitting with the young man and talking to him. Terese seemed to really soothe him while I paced around the room anxiously. The young talkative officer returned. He didn’t come back to guard Vadim though, but nonetheless you could hear him somewhere down the hallway. Vadim cracked up laughing but soon complained of jaw pain again and Terese decided to get the doctor to look at him prior to his routine patient checks. Unfortunately for the boy, he had suffered some nerve damage from being shot and the doctor had to perform another mini surgery on him and wire his jaw shut for the rest of the night until the following morning. That put an abrupt end to the chatter and had me bored for the rest of the shift since I had been looking forward to not just sitting in a chair and watching a patient sleep.

The police had requested that Vadim be in the constant eye of a medical professional since they wanted him alive at all costs. Alive so the State could kill him instead? He had been a trooper throughout his treatment but his condition seemed to slightly deteriorate before my shift ended that night. He came up with a mild fever and some of the stitches in his mouth were bleeding. You could see it in his eyes that he wanted all of that over with. I did my regular nurse duties and cleaned him up before calling it a night. There would be no overtime. I’d actually have a night to spend with Corey for the first time this past week. While I couldn’t really talk about the specifics that went on at work with him due to patient confidentiality, I could at least use a moral boost and unwind from all the stress. Just as I was ready to walk out the door of Vadim’s room he began making loud grunting noises to get my attention drawn back to him.

“What’s wrong hon?” I asked him even though he couldn’t speak, “Are you in pain?”

I then handed him the pad of paper and a pen so he could tell me what was up. Kiss goodnight he wrote simply before the pen trailed off the page. I leaned over and smooched him on the forehead before smiling sweetly at him.

“Good to go?” I asked before leaving.

He nodded his head. I then closed the lights, closed the door behind me and walked out into a snowstorm. As I inhaled and exhaled loudly out in the merciless wind, the air burned my lungs. I felt numb inside, still struggling to reconcile unreconcilable things inside my mind. There were always going to be people who leave traces on your soul, and for me Vadim Pushkin was one of them. It really didn’t matter how much you loved and cared for a person or wanted for them to get well, there was nothing you could do to stop them from causing harm, and much less undoing it.

Day 5 — Thursday

By the time I got through the clogged up traffic, I arrived at work almost two hours late. A tanker truck had flipped and spilled fuel all over the road and the environmental cleanup people had blocked it off only leaving one lane that each side had to share. When I walked into Vadim’s room he didn’t look happy.

“I didn’t think you were coming,” he sternly said to me as he was able to speak again.

“I’m sorry, I got caught in traffic,” I replied softly, “you might’ve heard people gossiping about it, but there’s a big spill on one of the main roads.”

“I don’t like the dude they sent to replace you.”

“Like you actually need all these people to watch over you.”

He smirked at my remark. Then I noticed Brandon, the newest and only male nurse in my unit. Officer I-Can’t-Keep-My-Mouth-Shut was in the room with another frail-looking police officer that was old enough to be his great-grandfather. He too seemed annoyed and unhappy.

“Please talk to me!” Vadim grumbled as I sat next to his bed.

“I’m right here,” I assured him as I held his little hand in mine, “how’s your jaw doing this morning?”

“They finally fixed it right apparently. Right now I’m pretty buzzed up on morphine, but I’m disfigured.”

“Disfigured?! Where? So you’ve got a few stitches on your pretty face where the bullets went in but there’s nothing abnormal about it.”

Yes, Vadim’s face was badly beat up, but there was nothing indicating that it wouldn’t return to normal.

“Here,” he said pointing somewhere around his mouth and his cheek, “the side of my mouth. It looks like I’m always grinning evilly even when I’m not.”

“Well, that’s definitely not the worst disfiguration I’ve ever seen,” I replied blandly.

While Vadim and I both laughed at my remark, it was indeed true. As a trauma nurse I had seen people come out of life-saving surgery missing a couple of pieces including eyes and ears and such and needing multiple reconstructive surgeries afterwards. So a patient who got a permanent smile on one side of his face definitely wasn’t the worst disfiguration I had ever seen.

“It’s a result of nerve damage honey,” I said in a more serious tone of voice, “from being shot in the temporormandibular joint area.”

“Say again?” he muttered, somewhat alarmed like I had just told him he had terminal cancer.

“TMJ, for short.”

“I have a headache just thinking about words like that.” “Nursing school gave me many headaches, believe me!” “Police officers give me headaches.”

It was so hard not to burst out laughing at that point but a few giggles escaped anyway. Vadim cracked up laughing but soon winced in pain since laughing like that put strain on his fragile and swollen jaw.

“What’s so funny?” the young talkative cop asked once he heard the laughter.

“Our patient here has quite the sense of humor,” I replied as I turned back to look at the officer, but then spoke on a more serious note, “but why is it that we need so many people to be with him around the clock? He can’t even get out of his bed!”

“It’s just orders from the big guys,” the chatty one went on, “we just gotta do what we’re told and not ask why I guess.”

And then of course came a lengthy speech. I rubbed Vadim’s hand to relax him since I knew he hated that kind of chatter. The cop’s partner had an enormous frown on his face and so did Brandon. I knew that he’d heard Vadim say that he didn’t like the dude they sent to replace me. I had never previously worked alongside Brandon but I knew that he didn’t sit down at the bedside of a teenage killer to hold his hand for hours at a time. It was hard to switch in and out of nurse mode all the time. At home you have to cringe at violent crime but at work but you have to be very affectionate and caring towards the very people who make you cringe like that. During the day you have to revive the killer and when you go home at night you have to agree with giving him the death penalty. I guess in a way it was just business as usual for me despite that in an ignored part of my conscious it weighed on me heavily.

“They’re sending me to a federal medical center tomorrow,” Vadim said after a few moments of listening to the chatter, “I’ll even get to meet my cheap ass lawyer that your taxes are paying for.”

“I know, you told me earlier and the doctor was doing some paperwork for you to be transferred when I arrived,” I replied in a gentle tone of voice in hopes to comfort him even just a little bit, “but don’t you worry. They’ll take very good care of you at McGraw Prison. Some of the nurses here get sent there sometimes too when there’s a shortage of staff so you might see me again.”

Contrary to what I had hoped to accomplish, Vadim grumbled and sighed loudly at my comment. Vadim’s face fell and he frankly looked like he was about to cry.

“After this crap is over I never want to see you again,” I muttered in a low voice.

I didn’t know how to respond to that. The young man saw that I was taken aback by his comment so he squeezed my hand; the gesture that I usually used on him to comfort him.

“I’m not saying this to hurt you,” he went on in a shaky voice, “I’m saying this because I love you.”

“I love you too,” I replied softly also squeezing his hand in return, “and I understand that it would hurt you to have me around because then you would long for me. I know what that feels like. It’s probably better that I don’t get too attached to you either, because if you receive a death sentence for this it will rip me up inside too since I got to know you the way that I did.”

I bowed my head down and pursed my lips. I thought a couple of tears were going to come out of my eyes but none did; it was Vadim who had tears rolling down his cheeks. I grabbed a tissue and gently wiped them away, being extra careful not to irritate the surgical cuts that had just started healing. For the first time since I had walked into the hospital that morning everyone in the room was silent. The young talkative officer looked like he wanted to cry too. Everyone else still had their frowns but their faces seemed to have softened up too. I couldn’t help by wonder, where were this boy’s parents? Anyone? Corey and I didn’t have children but I couldn’t imagine having a son — regardless of what he might’ve done — lie in a hospital bed critically wounded and then facing execution once his trial got under way. That was someone’s child, but it seemed like somewhere along the line the responsibility of being a mother to him had fallen on my shoulders.

“It’s going to be okay,” I attempted to reassure him.

“That’s what she said,” he replied dryly before a little smirk appeared on the other side of his face.

“God takes care of all His creation,” I spoke softly to him as I rubbed the top of his hand.

“Not a believer. If there was indeed a god things like this wouldn’t happen. I hate it when people tell me that this is all just a phase or that I’m having a bad day when they don’t see that I’m slowly dying inside. Really? Do you think this was just a phase? It’s a little too late for me to be taken care of now.”

“When I was your age my older brother shot himself. I’m the one who found his body in the garage. Back then I felt much of the same way you’re feeling now but there came a time where the reasons why I didn’t believe turned into the reasons I did believe.”

“Try me.”

“My faith gave me purpose. For the first time I felt as if my suffering hadn’t all been in vain; it hadn’t all been for nothing. I have no idea why that happened, or why this happened, but I simply must trust that somewhere in the order of the universe it will have served something. Otherwise life is utterly cheap and meaningless. I don’t have all the pieces or all the answers, but I trust that God does. When it seems like I’m trying to put all the Cornflakes together to make the rooster on the box to no avail, I trust that God is paving a few more miles of my journey.”

Vadim chuckled slightly at my metaphor but the look on his face soon returned to being serious.

“Do you believe in miracles?” he asked me after a short moment of silence.

“As a nurse, I have seen miracles,” I retorted, “you were supposed to die but by a power beyond anything in medicine you didn’t, and I trust that that wasn’t just a coincidence or all for nothing.”

“I bet I’m a Cornflake in your box.”

“The circumstances surrounding this is the Cornflakes factory, but you have made me hold on so much tighter to what I believe in. And I know how crazy all of this sounds to you, it sounded insane to me once upon a time too.”

Silence.

“I’m sorry that your brother died like that.”

“Thank you.”

“One thing I don’t understand is why my whole life has been nothing but pure crap and now, now that it’s basically over, there’s some pretty Cornflakes lady who sits at my bedside holding my hand the whole damn day.”

“Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t a test of my own convictions, or maybe it’s what will make the rest of your life change course, but on most days I simply do my best and let God do the rest because otherwise I’m a complete mess.”

“Have you ever prayed to touch the heart of another person?”

“Of course! I think everyone prays to leave a good kind of scar on another person at some point in their lives.”

“Then consider your prayer to have been answered.”

Before I could respond, the doctor walked in to check up on his patients before going home for the day. He seemed to be surprised at how quiet everyone in the room was.

“So how’s your jaw?” he asked Vadim in an upbeat tone of voice.

“He had quite a lot to say today,” I replied before he could speak.

“That’s certainly a sure sign of healing! But you also don’t want to put too much stress on it right away.”

After the doctor finished with him it was also time for me to call it quits for the night. I kissed him goodnight like I usually did and walked out. My body, mind and soul had been worn out from the day’s emotions. At work there were always plenty of distractions and sounding alarms and bandages to be changed, but when it was all over I was left with the remnants of the subconscious impact that all had on me. Yes, I wanted justice to be served, but I was also worried about him. I didn’t know where that worry came from, but it was there.

Day 6 — Friday

I had barely slept at all. I was somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I had cried. I had been particularly cold to Corey and had also left for work too early so I wouldn’t arrive late and risk making Brandon and Vadim deal with each other until I got there. Since I had plenty of time to spare I went into the staff cafeteria where I got a mini box of Cornflakes to give to my patient, be it that he probably wouldn’t be able to eat them. Some of the other staff members were talking about how he would be moved just before noon.

“I won’t mind seeing the death penalty.”

“One thing I’ll never understand is how people can feel bad for monsters like that. How can he just shoot up some place like that? That’s just crazy!”

I didn’t blame them for their opinions. I felt a chill run down my spine as well. Was I insane to feel compassion for someone like that? But who was I to let his monstrous actions get the best of me? Unlike him, I chose love.

“I know I’ll breathe easier when I don’t see all the cops loitering around here.”

With my box of Cornflakes in hand I walked into Vadim’s room. The other nurses were still there since I was still about ten minutes early for my shift but they all smiled at me when I walked in. The smile on the now eighteen-year-old’s face stretched from ear to ear, as much as possible at least, since one side of his face was stitched up and still in pretty bad shape. When I showed him the box of Cornflakes it’s like his whole world was made complete.

“Happy birthday!” I told him as joyfully as possible.

The others in the room didn’t seem to be aware that it was his birthday, but once it was brought to their attention we all sang him the good ole happy birthday to you blah blah up until we had to get everything under wrap and make sure he was ready to be moved. For the first time at work I felt an intense wave of emotion. That usual disconnection, that it’s a job mentality, left me for the first time. It almost frightened me. There’s a certain form of zoning out you have to go through in order to be able to cut people up and sew them back together at work. But then again, maybe that sort of disconnection is what had happened to Vadim in order for him to be able to shoot dozens of people. That was something I wasn’t sure I wanted to contemplate.

“You didn’t forget about me,” he muttered in a hoarse voice, seemingly not wanting to cry.

“I’ll never be able to forget about you,” I reassured him as I grabbed his hand possibly for the last time, “even if I tried.”

After he was given a mostly clean bill of health considering the condition he was currently in, I fed him dry Cornflakes one by one until the the prison officials who were in charge of moving him arrived. I’ll reluctantly admit that I was sad to see him go because I knew he wasn’t going home; he was probably going to await his eventual execution on death row. I felt like asking him about his parents but I decided to go against it because I didn’t want to ruin his birthday mood. He probably wouldn’t have anything nice to say about them anyway.

“Is there anything you want before you go?” I asked him, trying to keep my own voice from cracking.

“I ask for your forgiveness,” he said blandly, “and I ask that you pray for me.”

I was caught off-guard by his request and it took a moment for me to respond.

“Of course honey, I can certainly do that for you.” “Thank you.”

As the correctional officers approached I had to try hard not to give into my nurse instincts of coddling the patient. Be careful! He’s hurt! He’s just a kid! Take good care of him! But I kept my mouth shut. It was erroneous to react as if the police were the danger; the danger had been tied to the hospital bed for a week.

“One last kiss Vadim?” “Yes please.”

The kiss got a mixed reaction. Some of the many individuals in the room understood that I was just taking care of the kid, but some of the officers frowned at the gesture. Vadim was stone-faced as they led him away into a police van just before noon. My heart was aching in my chest when I walked outside during my lunch break into puffy snowflakes coming down from the sky. I leaned against the side of the building and looked at the scenery before me. Most of the journalist were gone, trailing behind the multitude of police vehicles, including two helicopters, who wanted a shot of the perpetrator. I was relieved that he was gone, but I still contemplated what would become of the boy I had once come to love. I’ll admit a little less reluctantly that part of me was worried about him.

I still am.

Posted in Books & Stories

Lost Thoughts — Volume Four: The Conqueror

I’d known Tamerlane Rodriguez for literally half of my life. I had first met him ten years ago, when we were both ten years old. His birthday was the day before mine, in fact we had an age difference of about five and a half hours. What had always stood out about the young man and still did were his oversized chocolatey brown eyes. They were like a galaxy in themselves. The Chocolate Milky Way. In the sunlight there wasn’t anything else like that river of liquid chocolate that I could’ve gazed into the whole damn day.

“Did you find it yet?” Tamerlane asked me, seemingly annoyed, “You know, you’ve done this to me my whole life.”

“Sorry!” I muttered out in embarrassment at being caught looking into his eyes, “But it’s only been half your life, only half Tamerlane.”

All he did was grin at me. I had indeed done that to him from the very day we’d met in the neighborhood park. It was nothing but a crummy little run-down playground tucked away behind a large apartment building mostly filled with people just trying to put food on the table for their families. I was new to that neighborhood and had no friends within walking distance so I’d gone to the park on a cloudy afternoon and the only other kid my age there was a little part Arab and part Spanish boy playing in the sand. I walked up to him and he looked at me almost fearfully. I extended my hand out to him in hopes that he wouldn’t see me as the enemy but it didn’t seem to be helping anything.

“What’s your name?” I asked him.

“It’s Tamerlane,” he muttered in a shy, almost pained voice.

“My name is Caroline, do you want to be my friend?”

“Okay.”

I approached him and kneeled down in the sand next to him as he dug up a toy car and handed it to me. He didn’t say much at first but once he warmed up to me he was a sweet boy. He was very polite, soft-spoken and intelligent. His father was a coal miner that had immigrated from Venezuela some fifteen years ago and his mother’s family had originally been from Saudi Arabia. The two of them had come to America in the hopes of a better life but had only come face to face with poverty. Amidst the financial destitution though, I had made myself a lifelong friend. The only one that had seen me through everything and stayed with me throughout the whole thing. He understood my own struggles with poverty because he lived them too and I empathized with his shyness around strangers because I had been trampled on too.

Tamerlane was really the closest thing I’d ever had to a brother. Despite the fact that the color of our skin was different, we shared the same soul, thought the same things and chased the same dreams. I had always been rather jealous of his beautiful, almost golden-like, skin because it seemed like he had a perfect perennial tan while I turned into a lobster the moment I stepped out into the sunlight. When you put a bronze god and seafood side by side, it’s obvious which one comes out on top. In ten years I’d never told him how beautiful I thought he really was but I knew that he knew. And I always made sure that he felt beautiful around me, because he was really the only one I could be completely myself around without fear of repercussion.

“Do you want to go to the restaurant?” Tamerlane asked me, “I’ve got some spare change.”

“Keep your money for yourself,” I replied, “you need it just as much as I do. Buy yourself some hair gel or something.”

“Who needs hair gel when I can just walk into a store and put it on right there?”

“Get a haircut in that case!”

I affectionately nudged his shoulder with my elbow as we walked down the street towards the downtown core where all the restaurants were lined up next to one another. All of them had specials of the day up in their front windows in hopes to attract hungry people there instead of somewhere else. As we passed by a vacant business space with dark, almost mirror-like windows Tamerlane stopped to look at himself in the glass and rearrange his hair. If his skin and his eyes weren’t beautiful enough, he had a full head of thick black hair that was overgrown and curly but most importantly, messy. His hairstyle depended largely on which direction the wind was blowing at any given moment and no matter what he tried to do with it, he had flyaway hair sticking out of everywhere.

“You’re worst than my mom with your hair obsession!” I commented as I walked passed him.

“Well if you’d like to try to get this under control, knock yourself out!” he responded in a cheeky tone of voice.

“Okay, well sit down on the bench here and I’ll fix that up for you.”

“Just because your mom is a hairdresser it doesn’t mean that you have any skills.”

“Hey! If you don’t want me to slap you sit down and keep your mouth shut!”

Tamerlane affectionately bumped into me and I responded by hitting his shoulder blade right where I had tattooed him the night before.

“Ouch!” he muttered out, mostly in shock at my gesture, “Do you not have sympathy for people whose skin was recently massacred by their best friend?!”

“Oh Tammy, you begged me to tattoo you!” I playfully reminded him.

“I don’t beg, I command.”
”Nah, that was definitely begging!”
”Have you forgotten that I am named after Tamerlane the Conqueror of Asia?”
”He was a terrorist and you’re just a nerdy adult that still behaves like a child!”

The two of us playfully pushed each other around until we arrived at the bench a few steps away. Tamerlane sat down and I tried to no avail to at least flatten his hair and get it a little more under control. The more I tried the messier it seemed to get. Eventually I just gave up and flopped down on the bench next to him. I attempted to poke his shoulder but he slapped my hand before I could. The previous night I had tattooed Tammy in Arabic in my basement with makeshift equipment including a sewing needle. It had taken me multiple hours to complete a small tattoo about three inches in length and Tamerlane had whined the whole time.

He had inherited the nickname Tammy and me George back when we were about twelve or thirteen years old. It had all started with our mutual love of George Jones and Tammy Wynette when Tamerlane’s neighbor babysat us. Sure, we were old enough to stay at home by ourselves, but our parents all worked incredibly long hours and we’d practically be left alone entire days to raise ourselves. Tamerlane’s father worked in a mine some four thousand miles away and was gone for weeks at a time while his mother was a waitress and didn’t come home until the early hours of the morning. My mother worked part-time at the corner store and then did hair and nails in the basement of our duplex apartment. She too worked long hours and I rarely got to see her. My father had died in an accident at the sawmill when I was just six years old and unfortunately I didn’t remember much about him.

Tamerlane’s neighbor was a sweet old lady well into her nineties that lived right next door to him on the third floor of the large apartment complex behind the playground we’d met in when we were children. All the old lady named Opal had was an eight-track player and a couple of classic country tapes that she listened to around the clock. Both Tamerlane and I had taken quite a liking to Something To Brag About as it was an accurate description of the blue collar lifestyle just trying to make it by but having plenty of love to share. He became Tammy when he literally stopped getting haircuts for a while and when I stopped having hair altogether. I didn’t like one of the haircuts my mother had given me so I had Tamerlane help me shave everything off. And so I became George, and those nicknames had stayed with us our whole lives because they reminded us of a much more stress-free and hassle-free time when our biggest problem was making sure our hair looked just right.

“Let me see if the swelling has gone down,” I said as I pulled up Tamerlane’s shirt to look at his shoulder blade.

“It wasn’t all that bad this morning,” he responded as I poked around underneath his shirt, “at least most of the redness is gone.”

“Ah, it ain’t that bad at all. I didn’t botch it too badly.”

“On the bright side you were cheaper than a professional tattoo artist.”

“And I can be a cheap hairdresser too!”

“But I like my hair!”

That, he certainly did. I had never liked mine very much, and I thought that was maybe part of the reason why I liked his so much. My entire life up until I became a teenager, my mother had done crazy things to my hair and I had often been embarrassed about it. For a while I cut my own hair myself which ended up being twice as bad as the hairdresser antics my mom made me go through on a regular basis. Then I gave a pair of scissors to Tamerlane who attempted to straighten out what I had done but then layers became stylish so I had one less hair dilemma. Most days I wore my hair short and periodically cut it once it got down to my shoulders. I was a sandy blonde with dark blue eyes, an almost identical duplicate of my mother. I liked my mother even though we didn’t really know each other. I wasn’t home very often, and in most of her free time was spent with her boyfriend Bailey, who was rather controlling and uptight in my opinion.

“So have you decided what you wanted to eat?” Tamerlane asked me as I poked around his skin around his tattoo, “I’m really not up to going to the soup kitchen and eating their cardboard bread today.”

“I know it’s disgusting Tammy but you should save up your money instead of spending it on me and restaurant food,” I replied as I pulled his shirt down.

“There will be more money.”

“I know but it’s only Tuesday and we need to make it through the whole week on a hundred bucks.”

“Stop worrying so much! There are plenty of ways to acquire money! This is Tamerlane the Conqueror wanting to feed you!”

How could I say no to those big brown eyes? I finally accepted and let him pick where he wanted to go. We ate at Barker’s, a chain restaurant across the midwest where you could have almost a whole meal for under two dollars but you definitely got what you paid for. I had some chicken nuggets and some root beer while Tamerlane had the cheapest, smallest cheeseburger I had ever seen. It wasn’t much, but it was a meal.

“For such a powerful military commander your meals are rather skimpy,” I joked as we both sat at a table by the window.

“I have my moments,” Tamerlane chuckled, “I’m at war against the world that tried to break me but I broke free.”

“It’s in moments like these that you captivate me the most.”

“Remember my name darling!”

I remembered one particular event in which I had experienced precisely the greatness of Tamerlane the Conqueror. Tamerlane was what we called a crossovert; literally a crossover between an introvert and an extrovert. A crossovert was a person who was generally shy, quiet and reserved around unfamiliar people and outgoing, talkative and confident around close friends. But that one particular time when we must’ve been eleven years old or so, Tamerlane the Conqueror had definitely overpowered Tamerlane the shy little boy from the park. We were going back to the apartment building after buying a few dollars worth of candy when a group of older children caught up with us and started pushing us around and tried to take our sweets. At one point they blocked our way and demanded the candy in exchange for letting us go through. I was afraid of them and I knew that my best friend was too, but something bigger than fear swept over him.

“I am Tamerlane the Conqueror,” he spoke boldly, “and you will not intimidate me or my best friend!”

He then marched forward right at the other boys and pushed one when he attempted to grab a bag of candy. Tamerlane pushed the other boy into a puddle of water on the side of the road and everybody else laughed at him. The boy started crying and the group left us alone. Growing up poor and being trampled on and looked down upon by those of higher socio-economic classes, Tamerlane had since gotten much bolder. Neither one of us went looking for trouble but we didn’t turn around and run when we were faced with something.

“What are you thinking about?” Tamerlane asked me with a grin as I was obviously deep in thought and not very talkative.

“The Conqueror,” I replied with a smile, “when he was eleven years old. Oh, and by the way, I have a hat for you in my backpack.”

He hadn’t been able to do anything with his hair which seemed to only get unrulier by the minute but it didn’t bother him. I opened up my faded green haversack and yanked out an overly creased black and white baseball cap. I tried giving it more of a shape before placing it over Tamerlane’s head and pressing hard on it so his hair would flatten out under it. Hair was still sticking out from under it all over the place but it had partially tamed the mess. The baseball cap gave Tammy a sweet boyish college kid appearance. He had managed to finish high school about a year ago, but I had never graduated. I had never even completed my freshman year! I had been much more interested in working part-time and then hanging out than actually wasting my time with school considering that it brought me nothing to help me survive for one more day. I never managed to keep a straight job for very long and I still didn’t have anything solid but at least I managed to have food to eat and have a bed to sleep in at night.

“I got fired from the club this morning,” Tamerlane admitted after a moment of silence.

“And now you’re buying me lunch,” I replied with food in my mouth, “so what are you gonna do now?”

“I don’t have much of a clue honestly.”

“This just validates what I told you earlier to keep your money! Now you have no job, you’re already behind on the rent and you don’t want your folks to kick you out, and you want a college education. None of those things come free.”

“Money really isn’t the only thing there is to life George, I believe in the principle of giving until it feels good. Don’t you?”

“It’s unfortunate Tamerlane, but it’s the givers who have to set limits because the takers rarely do.”

Tamerlane pursed his lips and slightly looked down. His dark hair partially covered the chunks of chocolate he had for eyes. I knew that he was stressed out because he was usually very talkative and upbeat around me but he didn’t want to worry me so he lessened his own problems to treat me to some cheap and nasty restaurant junk food.

“Do you think that taking until it feels good works the same way too?” he asked me after a brief moment of silence.

“I see nothing that would prove to me otherwise,” I responded after my own short moment of silent contemplation, “nothing that I have ever seen, read, heard, or experienced proved that money and material wealth brings happiness and satisfaction.”

“It would definitely bring more peace of mind though.”

“Of course! Financial security is important, but that’s not really the point here. What’s important is that you have $100 left in your name and you’re out here spending it on me. Let me help you out okay?”

“You already tattooed me for free Carrie, you paid for the kit and everything that came with it out of your own pocket, that’s more than enough considering that it’s on my skin forever.”

Just a little under a year prior I had gotten myself a DIY tattoo kit because it was only about $30 compared to getting a tattoo professionally done. I had used up most of what came with it except for some girly ink colors and miscellaneous junk that had come with it. I had no more needles for the machine itself, hence I had to brutalize my Tamerlane with sewing needles that I had sterilized using the flame of a candle. I had tattooed myself so much that I’d used most of everything in the first two months of getting the kit. My leg artwork wasn’t great but I liked it. For Tamerlane it had been his first tattoo, and considering the experience, probably his last. The only thing I could really say though was that it was much easier to tattoo another person than to tattoo yourself. Most importantly, it hurt a heck of a lot less!

“I did a no show last night,” Tamerlane admitted, “and this morning when I did show, I was out of a job.”

“See, this is precisely what I was telling you about you begging me to tattoo you,” I shot back with a smirk, “you wanted the tat so much that you skipped work!”

“That’s not what happened and you know it!”
”You don’t need to try to explain yourself to me Tammy, I know what kind of guy you are!”
”Oh, is that right now? I bet you weren’t expecting

me to stand up to that gang of bastards when we were kids!”

We both cracked up laughing at that point. Nope, I hadn’t expected that of such a soft-spoken little boy like him.

“Tamerlane was the Sword of Islam,” he went on but I cut him off before he could finish.

“And you’re not Muslim!” I playfully shouted as I attempted to smack his shoulder, “So it comes down to, yes, I know the kind of guy you are!”

His face turned red at my comebacks as I managed to tease him into submission.

“Alright, I give up,” he admitted as he chuckled, “you know the kind of man I am.”

“But this doesn’t solve your job problem,” I went on in a more serious tone of voice.

“Please do me a favor and stop worrying about me!”

“You’re a brother to me for God’s sake! How can I not care about you and and want to look out for you?!”

“I’m Tamerlane the Conqueror, you can rest easy George.”

“Alright, you got me, I’ll leave you alone! But please let me help you look for a job okay?”

“Sure, let’s get to it.”

If you didn’t have a fancy resume filled with experience with you, you didn’t have many opportunities. Sure, Tamerlane had a high school diploma filled with good grades and plenty of job experience since he got his first job when he was thirteen, but he didn’t have any specialized training or a university degree to qualify for the high-expertise jobs that were in demand in a city in which the commercial and industrial sectors were booming dramatically. Nobody wanted to hire Tammy part-time and pay him under the table for a few days of work to pay for his next meal and Tamerlane wasn’t the kind of person to go around gaining money by means of deceit. The best he could’ve gotten was a few replacement shifts at a corner store on the other side of town for $7.50 an hour. The income would’ve been steady for the time it lasted, Tamerlane would’ve been guaranteed his paycheck, but he needed money to put on the table today, not next month. Even after a whole afternoon, the only thing we had both accomplished was walk right through our shoes for another time. Tamerlane’s shoes came from the Salvation Army and were starting to fall apart. My boots had been stolen from Walmart ten years ago. My whole life I had only wanted a pair of shoes that were new.

The same year that I had met Tamerlane, his neighbor had bought us both a few pieces of new clothes for the summertime. I had gotten a pair of shorts and Tammy had gotten a new pair of shoes. I had worn out the shorts in just a couple of months, but what I had really wanted was a new pair of shoes. I didn’t want a so-called new pair of shoes from Value Village or even a pair that had never been worn from the Salvation Army. I wanted them to be new from the store. So on one autumn day Tamerlane and I had wandered into the mall in the downtown core and eventually made our way into the Walmart in there. I hadn’t gone in to steal or anything of that sort, but when I saw a pair of shoes that I liked I told my best friend that I wanted to try them on just for fun while he looked at toys and other stuff. While nobody was looking, I put my old shoes into the shoebox and put it back on the shelf and walked out of there with a pair of brand new shoes.

“But stealing is against the Bible!” Tamerlane protested when he noticed the shoes after we had started walking back home.

He had lectured me for well over an hour but he had never threatened to tell anybody about what I had done. He had been faithful to me right to the very end. I’d been wearing those shoes ever since. I had them on my feet nearly 24/7 and my feet had barely grown in ten years. The shoes were mostly tape and rope and stitches and other thingamajigs than actual shoes nowadays but to me they were still my new shoes. They had been faithful to me too in ten years but I knew that all good things were going to have to come to an end because I was literally barefoot underneath those old running shoes. If I walked too fast I was afraid they were going to disintegrate right there on the sidewalk. Ten years ago cameras inside department stores weren’t incredibly popular, or at least juvenile thieves weren’t prosecuted as much, but I wasn’t sure I was up to attempting another shoe robbery of the sort considering that the consequences would be more expensive than the actual shoes.

“I should buy you a new pair of shoes,” Tamerlane commented like he could almost read my mind.

“There is no way in hell that I am letting you do that!” I protested, “I’ll just get myself a $20 pair from the discount store with the rest of my paycheck once my rent is paid up.”

I was unemployed too. The owner of John’s Pizzeria had suffered a massive stroke and was unable to manage the business anymore so he’d let me go just under a month ago. That job had been the longest that I’d ever been able to keep in my lifetime. I hadn’t exactly bothered to look for another one because I had done some babysitting for old friends here and there and mostly spent my free time hanging out with Tamerlane or tattooing myself or my friends. The days had gone by amazingly fast and my money had drained much faster than I could have ever anticipated. The good days of not worrying about a thing were long over and had been for a very long time yet I kept on prolonging them. At least I tried to prolong them, I knew that I was going nothing but screwing myself in the end.

“I don’t know what kind of excuse I’m going to give my father for not being able to pay the rent,” Tamerlane muttered as we approached his apartment building, “he always counted on me. He was always proud of me for stepping up to the plate and now to tell him that I was fired, that’s not gonna go so well.”

“If you ever need a place to stay,” I tried to reassure him, “you know you can always stay with me.”

“Your stepfather doesn’t think that the color of my skin makes me a bronze god.”

“Number one, he is not my stepfather, secondly, I live there, he doesn’t. But more importantly, if he doesn’t like this deal, then he should just stay in his own apartment. You know that my mom loves you and she won’t throw you out.”

“I know that your mom wouldn’t throw me out, but I don’t want to cause trouble for you because I know how hard it is for you to cope with life.”

“You make it so much easier.”

Tamerlane grabbed me and squeezed me tightly against him in the lobby of his apartment building. We had hugged each other often in ten years but he had rarely hugged me like that. Only someone needing to be comforted and reassured gave hugs like that. I squeezed him equally tightly because deep down inside I needed the same things he did. My anger and my bitterness towards the unfairness of life often completely blocked out my much softer emotions such as the basic need to be held and knowing that I wasn’t out there waging war against humanity all by myself. I removed Tamerlane’s hat and put it on myself backwards before running my fingers through his hair and making it fly in every direction. The late afternoon sun made his dark features glow and once again I got lost in the Chocolatey Way called Tamerlane Rodriguez’s eyes. After a few moments he let go of me and slightly leaned forward to smooch me on the cheek. He had never kissed me before and I was somewhat taken aback at the gesture but it definitely left me with a feeling of sweetness rather than one of bitterness inside.

My best friend and brother signalled me to follow him inside the building where we walked up multiple flights of stairs before he unlocked the door to apartment 29. It was nothing but a cheap old wooden door and the apartment had a broken window that was boarded up in the living room. The place looked sort of like mine; not too much furniture, and especially not nice new fashionable furniture, dim lights, an old TV in the corner, and books and magazines and newspapers all over the kitchen table. Tamerlane’s mother was sitting on an old chair in front of the TV with terrible reception but his father wasn’t in even though it was supposed to be his day to come back home from work camp. Tammy let out an overly loud sigh after his mother greeted him in Arabic. She hadn’t been home for very long because she was still wearing her work clothes. As soon as she noticed me she warmly greeted me and invited me to sit down in the living room. I politely thanked her but stayed in the doorway because I’d have to head home soon enough as there wasn’t enough room for me to stay in Tamerlane’s apartment.

“Where’s dad?” Tamerlane asked when he noticed his father wasn’t around.

“He’s staying at camp because we need the money to pay the rent,” his mother admitted in an indifferent tone of voice, “we got a letter from the landlord saying that if we weren’t paid up by the end of this week we’d be evicted at the end of the month.”

Tamerlane’s head fell as another exasperated sigh came out of his mouth.

“What’s wrong son?” Mrs. Rodriguez asked in a concerned tone of voice as Tamerlane was generally always upbeat and enthusiastic.

“I lost my job today mom,” he finally spite out with a grunt, “so I guess I’ll just pack my bags and go right now so y’all will have one person less to worry about.”

“Tamerlane!”

“Here’s ninety bucks mom, this is all I’ve got left, I really need some air.”

Mrs. Rodriguez was still speaking to Tamerlane in Arabic when we both barged through the door and walked back outside. It had gotten considerably darker in just a few minutes and much cooler too but I had on an engine red hoodie and Tamerlane had on a grey sweater that had once been black. It was sort of a mutual understanding at that point that we we’d be walking over to my place just a few streets down. We both remained unusually silent during the short trek to the building that was both my house and my mother’s redneck home hair salon. When we walked in my mother was cutting somebody’s hair and briefly said hi to us before going back to talking to her client. Tamerlane and I went straight to my tiny little room that was about the size of a walk-in closet. Against the right side of the wall there was my little single bed that I’d had basically my entire life, then I had a regular dresser on the other wall and a small table next to it. There was a small one-door closet and a tiny window near the top of the wall. Underneath my bed I had most of my things and most of my clothes served as a carpet.

“I’ll get you some new sheets for the bed,” I muttered as I looked at my little bed in disgust.

I probably hadn’t changed the sheets in well over a month. That didn’t bother me very much but I didn’t want my friend to have to sleep in my filth. That definitely would not have been polite of me to do something like that.

“Sleep in your own bed Carrie,” Tamerlane spoke in a gentle voice, “I’ll do the floor.”

“I doubt you’ll have much room down there,” I protested, “but I’ll manage to squeeze myself in between my furniture.”

Tamerlane and I argued back and forth about who was going to sleep in the bed for a few minutes until he finally decided to grab me, shove me onto my bed and pin me down by getting on top of me.

“Sleep. In. Your. Own. Bed.” Tamerlane whispered to me with a huge playful smile on his face.

An equally big grin appeared on my face and to retaliate I grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down over me.

“Then you’re sleeping in it with me,” I taunted him.

“Fine,” he replied, “there’s room enough for two people.”

As he said that he squeezed himself between the wall and me and put his arm around me so I wouldn’t fall off the bed on the other side. I had maybe less than an inch of bare mattress between me and the cold hard floor so I held on to his solid and steady forearm not to land in exactly the place he had tried so hard to keep me away from. I started giggling uncontrollably at the thought so I tried turning around to mask the sound of my laughter but being in Tamerlane’s face like that only made me crack up even more.

“What in the world is so funny?” Tamerlane was struggling to keep his voice from cracking up into a giggle too.

“I don’t know,” I muttered in between my snorts, “I’m just… happy.”

“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen you be happy?!”

“Probably forever.”


”Something like that.”


”Oh! Oh I have to go to the bathroom!”

I was laughing so hard that I was about to wet myself, and my bed, and Tamerlane too, so I barged out of my room and into the bathroom that was just next door. I flicked on the light and immediately saw my red face in the mirror, but I wasn’t red from laughing. I had an awful sunburn that made me look like a lobster again. I did my business and then examined myself more closely. My whole neck was bright red too. I touched it and it was scorching hot but it didn’t particularly hurt, not yet, it was still a little too early for that. But I was too happy to even think about the pain of turning into seafood. I don’t know how long I looked at myself in the mirror but it was long enough for my best friend to come knocking on the door and ask me if I was okay. I let him in and noticed that my mother had either gone out or gone to bed because all the lights in the place were off and there were no signs of life at all. Having the house all to yourself never hurt nobody.

“Oh darn!” Tamerlane exclaimed when he saw me, “Burnt seafood!”

“Yeah, I burned my dinner,” I said in a much more serious tone of voice, “and this is gonna hurt.”

“Put some ointment right away to avoid you the pain in the morning.”

“I don’t think I have any anymore, I used it all up last time.”

“In the future it may be cheaper to just buy sunscreen.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

I somewhat felt like playfully slugging him in the shoulder where I had tattooed him but I knew that he wasn’t his usual self so I decided to hug him in the doorway instead. The light that usually radiated from deep inside of him had faded and for some reason I felt the childlike happiness that I hadn’t felt in a long time just because I had my best friend close to me even though I didn’t have a dime to my name and I was completely destitute. Tamerlane had always prided himself in his self-reliance and he had never been in quite a hopeless situation like that before. He let out a loud sigh when I put my arms around him before squeezing me tightly against him. After a moment of emotional intensity on both our parts, we let each other go. I took the opportunity to look into those chocolate eyes. Tamerlane stuck his tongue out at me when he noticed what I was doing, which was pretty much immediately.

“Let’s go out to the drug store and get you some ointment for that lobster tan, or more like lobster burn, of yours,” he said softly, “there’s one open all night not too far from here.”

“You don’t even a dollar in your name,” I protested as I grabbed his hand and tried to make him stay.

“I do have enough to buy you some cream.”

“Please stop thinking that you constantly need to take care of me. I’m not that little girl scared of the dark anymore like when we were ten.”

Even back when we were younger we’d love to stay up late, but I didn’t like going too far after the dark settled in because I was a believer that monsters lurked out there, and as I got older I only came to believe it more. When Tamerlane and I hung out at the park or somewhere in town after dark, he always held my hand to come home. Unlike him, I’d never really had either one of my parents to guide me in life and he had come to take the job upon himself to take me under his wing and take care of me. Even though I had come to being independent over the years, that mentality had never left his mind. He was always going to be my older brother in some way after all. I couldn’t hold it against him, I could only be grateful to have been blessed enough to have him in my life.

“Come on Caroline!” Tamerlane nagged me when I didn’t let go of his hand.

“Okay, well wait a minute,” I replied, “maybe there’s money hidden around here somewhere.”

My mother and her boyfriend had their hiding places for money around the house. We’d had our place broken into a couple of times and the thieves usually went for wallets, jewelry boxes, and the like, but they rarely looked in empty cans of Maxwell House sitting in plain sight on the kitchen table. And sure enough there was a can of coffee on the counter so I opened it right up but as I did, all the kitchen lights turned on to expose me with two $50 bills in my hand. I was taken aback when I saw my mother and Bailey come up from the basement. I had previously thought that Tamerlane and I had been alone in the house, and they had thought that they had been alone too because we were all equally shocked to see each other. Bailey hated Tamerlane simply because of the color of his skin and I knew that there was going to be hell to pay being caught redhanded in his stash of money for alcohol and other stuff necessary for his bitter and volatile existence.

Bailey immediately burst into a complete meltdown and attempted to attack me but Tamerlane tackled him to the ground long before he could lay a finger on me. I ran to my room and grabbed my backpack along with a blanket and ran outside as fast as I could. I ran all the way to the end of the street and stood by the stop sign until Tammy arrived less than five minutes later. He grabbed me by the hand and walked me to the nearest pharmacy open all night. Underneath the streetlights I could see that he’d been punched in the face pretty badly and there was blood on his shirt but he didn’t complain about it, he didn’t even speak about it. I felt unbelievably guilty because I was the only reason he ever got himself in trouble. If he had to get belligerent with somebody, it was because of me. If he ever had to go against his beliefs and values, it was because of me. If he’d ever have to lay down his life, it was going to be because of me.

We both remained completely silent on our short walk to the pharmacy. It was rather chilly at night but we’d be alright. Once we got to the pharmacy I bought some tissues and bandages while Tamerlane went to the bathroom to clean himself up. I then barged into the men’s bathroom and saw that he’d been given a bloody nose by my mother’s boyfriend and he still had blood on his neck. He had a scratch over his eyebrow but that seemed to be the full extent of his visible injuries. He held his right hand in his left one as if he was in pain but I had no trouble believing that the Conqueror had beaten up Bailey to a pulp and came out on top like a true warrior. Tamerlane let me clean him up without protest and without speaking but the emotions were building up inside of me and I felt like I needed to apologize to him for all that I had done but I didn’t know where to begin. I was just as blank inside as I had been before.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, not knowing what else to say.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he reassured me with a gentle smile.

“This happened to you because of me. And that’s just what happened today. I have a lot to be sorry for.”

“No, that’s not true. This happened to me because you didn’t want me to take care of you. It’s better me than you. I’m Tamerlane the Conqueror after all.”

I leaned forward and I kissed his forehead before pressing my face up against his. I could feel my lobster burn crying out for pain relief but I didn’t pull away until the warrior pushed me away gently. The only reason he did was to mock my sunburn with the kind of humor that only he could use to make a crappy day turn into a much better one.

“You didn’t buy some lotion,” Tamerlane reminded me, “and you’re precisely the reason why we wanted to come here in the first place.”

A smile was the only thing I could give him. We both walked out of the bathroom when another man walked in. He was surprised to see a woman in the men’s bathroom but I apologized and then walked out giggling. Tamerlane went straight to find me some relief lotion and paid for it with the remnants of his own money and then covered my face and my neck with it while we were still in the store. I sighed loudly at him still behaving like he needed to save me from the rest of the world. Maybe he did after all.

“I wouldn’t be a good brother to you if I didn’t do this,” he reminded me, “and maybe one day I won’t be around to do it, so enjoy it.”

“Come on Tamerlane,” I spoke softly, “you’re the great ruler of the world.”

“Now you tell me that I’m a hero after telling me that Tamerlane was a terrorist for half of my life!”

“Hey! Don’t give me a reason to slap your tattoo!”

“Don’t forget who you’re dealing with here!”

“But seriously! Yeah, Tamerlane committed insane atrocities but you can’t deny that he was a great and powerful man for accomplishing everything that he did and building such an empire. You’ll never see a war without a little blood and a warrior without a little tarnish on his medals. The name does mean iron after all.”

Tamerlane leaned forward to smooch me on the cheek but then recoiled when he got too close to me and smelled the stench of the ointment he’d just put on me. We both giggled before we walked back outside into the night. It looked like we’d both be spending the night under a bridge or something similar because I wasn’t about to go back home to the mess that had just taken place there and Tamerlane was too prideful to return home empty-handed. Across the street from the pharmacy there was a motel and as we walked outside a man was dragging his two screaming kids into the lobby of the motel room while his wife trailed behind him with what looked like a very important briefcase in one hand and a handbag in the other. I already had a headache for the poor guy and the other people trying to sleep in there.

“One day I want to have a house full of kids,” Tamerlane quietly commented as we watched for a brief moment from across the street.

“Have fun,” I muttered out, “having kids will ruin your life.”

“Come on George! Kids make your life awesome! It’s an excuse to not act like an adult!”

“That’s not what my mother told me.” “You are not your mother.”
”But I’m also not you.”

With those words I knew I had cornered him. But then one of his usual goofy smiles appeared on his face and I knew I was about to be teased.

“Well, when you do have children you will have to name the firstborn Tamerlane regardless of if it’s a boy or a girl,” he spoke slowly trying not to crack up laughing, “or maybe Tammy for a girl.”

I began laughing too but then a strong gust of wind blew through the street and brought me back to reality with a cold chill. I was officially homeless. Only temporarily, yes, but that still didn’t change the fact that I was homeless to begin with.

“Take this money,” I instructed Tamerlane as I took out the cash, “and give it to your mom and go home.”

“No,” he replied dryly, and I knew not to make any further comments on the subject matter.

He gently grabbed me by the arm and we started walking towards the waterfront. There were a lot of abandoned buildings there that we’d be able to stay in. There was no way I was going to a shelter for women or for homeless people. George and Tammy were staying together, end of story.

“What did your mother tell you before you left?” I asked after a long moment of silence with nothing but the sound of traffic in the distance.

“She told me that she loved me,” Tamerlane replied softly.

I knew too well not to tell him that we should go back to his place. Instead of opening my mouth I kept it shut and walked faithfully beside him. I trusted that he had a plan. Between the two of us he had always been the one who was prepared. Once we got to the waterfront we attempted to shack up for the night in an old abandoned building but the stench of mold burned in your lungs with each breath you took. It didn’t take long before we both got out of there but the smell stayed with me for a while. I imagined having to live in buildings that smelled like that for the rest of my days. I couldn’t fathom that. I didn’t want to. Something had to give. But what was there to be given when there was nothing to be taken? After about twenty minutes of looking around for someplace half-decent to camp for the night without any luck we decided to walk up the hill right behind the houses on the waterfront where there was a large but beaten up wood fence that could shield us from the wind in the parking lot of a Target store that had long since closed its doors.

There was honestly nothing to be said so I placed my blanket on the ground and Tamerlane and I laid down in it with our heads resting on the makeshift pillow that was a backpack. Tamerlane put his arm around me and held me against him so we could both stay warm. We pulled the remainder of the blanket over us since it was rather chilly at night on the pavement of an abandoned lot. All I could hear was Tammy’s shallow breathing, cars in the distance and the waves splashing up on the shore beyond the fence. There were streetlights in the distance but it was mostly the moonlight and the stars that provided most of the light in the parking lot. The sky was clear and the millions of stars up there formed beautiful patterns to gaze into eternity. I wondered if there were any realms beyond what the eyes could see. There was so much beauty, how could there not be?

“Be careful so you don’t get burned by that moonlight!” Tamerlane joked.

“You can’t get moonburned for your information!” I retorted giggling, “It’s not called a sunburn for nothing!”

The two of us cracked up laughing like only we could. Despite everything, there was still laugher in our souls and joy in our hearts. I was definitely worried about what the future would hold, if there was a future to be seen at all. It was unwritten, but I had dropped the pen to write it. I tried not to think too much since I knew too well that the art of over thinking something was nothing more than creating problems that wouldn’t otherwise exist. So I dared to stare at the stars and the endless galaxy stretched out before me. Eventually lethargy won the fight my body had put up against it once the adrenaline had completely drained out of my system. And so I dozed off underneath an infinite blanket of stars in the safety of my best friend’s arms and only a slight breeze blowing over the fence. And no getting burned by the light of the moon.

The sky had just begun to turn a light blue when I awoke again merely four hours later. I was sore and cold but my sleep had been peaceful and undisturbed by the elements around me. Tamerlane was already awake but he hadn’t left my side. Once he saw that I was awake he removed the humid blanket from over us and got up to stretch. I did the same but not before begging my body to let me rest just a little bit more, but to no avail. I was getting up and getting ready to face the day ahead no matter what. For a fraction of a second I wanted to break down and cry. In my sleep I had no such troubles as being homeless and destitute but in my waking hours, I couldn’t quite stop my current situation from looming over my head. Not when it was right in front of my face. Not when my face still burned and itched. And especially not when the flame of hope inside my soul had stopped burning completely.

“Good morning George,” Tammy greeted me, “did you sleep well?”

“Morning!” I sighed, “I could sleep more. I never realized how hard asphalt really was.”

“Sleeping on it is definitely different than falling on it.”

“You got that right!”

Once I got on my feet I leaned against the fence next to Tamerlane for a few moments before getting on the tip of my toes to peer over it. I was taken aback by what I saw over it. Despite being in a rather impoverished neighborhood on the east side of the waterfront, right over the fence stood a large three-storey house worth a very minimum of half a million dollars. I had never really paid too much attention to the waterfront before since I never hung out there, but that particular morning seeing the house slapped me in the face more than it should have. I climbed onto the fence and sat on it to examine the house more closely. Only a couple of lights were on in the front but the sky was becoming lighter by the minute so it became easier to see the overly perfect features of the back of the house, the pool on the second- storey deck and the biggest BBQ grill I had ever seen in the backyard next to some stone decorations that were probably worth more than my actual existence.

“It’s the first time that I actually notice this,” I commented in a blank tone of voice.

“I always knew it was there,” Tamerlane replied in a similar tone of voice, “but I had neglected to realize how big it really was until now.”

“I don’t understand how some people can have all the money in the world and others don’t have money at all. How some people eat too much and become obese while others don’t have anything to eat and die of hunger.”

“Believe me when I tell you that I wish I had all the answers to those questions, but I hold on to the belief that one day everything will be balanced.”

“Not in this life that’s for sure, the big guys always win. No matter what you do to rise up against them, they always get the last word.”

“God gets the last word, I believe that. If you wrong others your judgment will be awaiting.”

I bit my bottom lip, somewhat in anger at unfairness in general, and somewhat at not being able to comprehend life itself. How had it come to such a point? Why wasn’t it different? Why didn’t anyone do something about it? Why didn’t I do anything about it?

“Do you really believe there is a God?” I asked Tamerlane in a rather coarse tone of voice.

“Yes,” he replied softly, “there has to be. I cannot suffer my whole life and then just die and there’s nothing waiting for me on the other side. I have to believe that some form of justice will be served at some point.”

“‘Cause there’s no justice here.”

“You can’t have justice without mercy or mercy without justice. There needs to be a delicate balance of both, there needs to be fairness, and equilibrium. No, I don’t believe anyone should ever be condemned, but people also shouldn’t get away with things.”

“I think that if people helped each other instead of destroying each other there would be much more peace and harmony going on around here.”

“I agree with you, but the best you can do is live at peace with yourself.”

I bit my lip again. There was no such thing as peace inside this troubled soul of mine. There was no peace in seeing one of the lights in the house come on and someone about to leave for a big important job in a big building touching the sky when I’d have to fight to live another day without knowing if I was ever going to see tomorrow. Suddenly I became rather distressed as a wave of anger flooded over me. I could not remain idle.

“There’s something I’ve gotta do,” I muttered in a voice barely louder than a whisper.

I swallowed hard, there was more I wanted to say but I was afraid that my voice would crack and that Tamerlane would have to come rescue me again. I had gotten him into this mess and I was going to get him out of it. And so I let myself slide off the fence and land on the little ledge on the other side.

“What in the world are you doing?!” Tamerlane almost shouted at me.

“I’m going to create some justice for myself in this life,” I muttered, trying to sound confident when in reality I was shaking with fear inside.

“Please don’t tell me that you’re going to try to rob these people or something of the like!” Tamerlane shouted angrily as he too jumped off the fence and came down the ledge behind me, “They haven’t done anything to you! They aren’t the ones who made our lives this way!”

Logic and reason went down the drain as adrenaline began pumping through my veins. Someone had just left the house in a Mercedes-Benz so I figured that if I came in and made just a little noise the other tenants, if any, would think that it was the guy that just left who came to pick up something he’d forgotten. But even if they pulled a gun on me or called the police, I only wanted a taste of the power that had been taken from me long before I was even born. I wanted to be the one on top, I didn’t want to be the one suffering anymore.

“Lord help me,” Tamerlane sighed as he caught up to me, “my best friend doesn’t know what she’s doing!”

I turned around and slapped him in the shoulder. He didn’t cringe too much, his tattoo had probably began to heal up nicely since I had done it, but he still attempted to grab my hand and pull me back.

“There’s nothing you can do to stop me now,” I told him harshly, “just wait outside.”

“What are you even going to do?” he asked me in a gentle voice.

What was I going to do? I hadn’t even thought about that because it didn’t matter to me. I walked across the small yard and climbed up onto the deck on the second floor where there was a nice sliding door that wasn’t even locked! Security was really nothing more than a state of mind. No locks or alarms or weapons could really keep the danger away. That was something I had learned the hard way. Once inside the house everything was dark but I could still see. There was barely any furniture or decorations in the hallways. The place seemed depressingly bleak, more like a box than a mansion. I tiptoed down the stairwell to the first floor where the kitchen was. Food is really what I wanted more than money. I looked outside through the large dinning room windows and opened one up for Tamerlane to come into the house. He approached but didn’t enter. He wasn’t going to tell anyone that I had broken into a house but he wasn’t going to participate either.

In front of me there was a huge stainless steel fridge. I imagined it being filled with kingsize cakes and other delicious things so I opened it up and attacked the first block of cheese I saw once I opened the door. A few moments later I heard some footsteps behind me. I figured it was Tamerlane who had come to pig out in some free food too. Since I had found the food I had become a little less filled with rage. I figured that I’d just take some food and maybe a statue and leave without doing much harm. In prison I wouldn’t have to worry about not having food or shelter, but the one thing that meant the most to me in life was far away from those barbwire fences. It was a young man with huge brown eyes and the sweetest smile in the whole world. I grabbed a second block of cheese and turned around to hand it to Tamerlane but who I saw was a young woman in a nightgown walking my way. As soon as she saw me she began screaming.

I was taken aback just as much as she was and ended up dropping the large block of cheese on my foot and shouted in anger. The woman immediately ran into the other hallway and I took the opportunity to take a couple of things from the fridge and ran for the open window but Tamerlane had come in through it and was running in my direction but everything happened so fast that I didn’t get the chance to fully realize what was going on around me before my best friend tackled me to the ground and I heard a gunshot. The fruits and the cheese and the jar of peanut butter went flying on the other side of the large kitchen and rolled on the floor, hitting the edge of a counter and coming back rolling towards me. The side of my head hit the floor hard and Tamerlane’s upper body landed over me while his legs landed next to me. Next to me I saw a bullet hole in the island counter and around me I saw a pool of blood.

But it wasn’t my blood, I hadn’t been shot. I wasn’t injured, I had merely banged my head. It was my best friend and brother who’d taken the bullet for me. The bullet had entered the side of his neck and came out on the side of his mouth, leaving a gaping wound in his jaw. He put his hands over the side of his face but he couldn’t stop the bleeding. I kneeled down next to him and tried to help him but there was little I could do to help him. The woman dropped the gun once she saw the damage she had done to Tamerlane’s face and called 911. Although I heard her yelling and crying over the phone I couldn’t make out what she was saying. The gun blast had deafened me and the adrenaline pumping through my veins blocked out any logic and reasoning once again. The only thing I could really bring myself to do was hold my best friend in my arms one last time without knowing if anyone was really going to help him or not. He’d always been a warrior, but even warriors need rescuing sometimes.

“I need Tamerlane the Conqueror right now!” I managed to choke out as the air came flooding back into my lungs and setting my airways on fire in the process.

I let out a loud and exasperated sigh and started to cry when Tammy squeezed my arm with one hand. The warm dark red blood dripped all over me, his hair, and the floor. The woman had since gotten off the phone and brought a blanket for Tamerlane who had lost a considerable amount of blood and was about to go into shock.

“Please remember me,” he chocked up in a barely audible voice as he was coughing up blood.

“I couldn’t forget you even if I tried!” I shouted out as my tears fell on his face.

“Do something good in memory of me,” he tried to speak louder, “and help people instead of condemning them.”

“I will,” I spoke as softly as I could to reassure him, “I promise you that I will.”

Finally the paramedics barged in through the door and gave Tamerlane first aid before strapping him up to a stretcher and bringing him outside to the waiting ambulance. The no name woman took me by the hand and brought me out to watch him being hauled away. She held me tightly in her arms, probably trying to calm herself down more than to comfort me, and repeatedly muttering out in barely audible mumbles that everything was going to be okay. The paramedics closed the back door of the ambulance and did their best to fix up Tamerlane on the spot before a doctor could work on him but it only took a few seconds before one paramedic looked at the other with a frown on his face and shaking his head. He was gone. Forever. The conqueror had lost the fight. But he’d gone out a hero. He’d given his life protecting the person he loved the most. Tamerlane Rodriguez had been my Superman all the way up until he took his last breath.

I collapsed into the arms of the woman as my legs gave out. Even she couldn’t hold me, and after a few moments we both wound up on the ground as the sun was rising in the distance and a swarm of police cars arrived. It was all over. I raised up both my arms in surrender when a police officer approached me, but he didn’t cuff me. Instead he put a blanket around me, took me in his arms and walked me to his car. He sat me down in it and asked me to tell him what had happened. I told him everything. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get out of it so what was the use of lying? I had gotten my best friend killed. I could’ve lied to the police all I wanted but I’d never be able to lie to myself. I knew what I’d done. I couldn’t fathom not looking into those big chocolatey brown eyes again. The hardest part was knowing that he’d loved me enough to die for me. What ate away at me inside was knowing that he shouldn’t’ve had to do that.

Down at the police station I wasn’t charged with murder. I wasn’t even charged with break and enter or robbery, or anything, as a matter of fact. The woman and her husband asked to drop all charges and to get me some help instead of some jail time but I’d have to be processed in a court of law anyway. Part of me wanted to go to prison and to rot in there for the rest of my life, I quite frankly deserved it, but in the back of my mind I could almost hear Tamerlane’s voice telling me that nobody deserved to suffer. I literally heard his sweet voice boldly telling me that he was Tamerlane the Conqueror and he’d never let the world trample on me. From that moment on I knew I’d be looking up at the stars at night and wondering if he was somewhere up there reminding me that even though I couldn’t always see him, he’d always be present. From that moment on he’d have the best seat in the house.

“I could easily put you away for most of you life,” the judge spoke at my hearing, “but my job isn’t to condemn you. My job is fundamentally to attempt to separate the right from the wrong. What you did was terrible, but it would be unfair of me to take away something that you don’t even have. Instead I’m going to show you mercy and compassion and choose to give you a second chance, a chance for you to do something good with your life, like your friend would’ve wanted.”

I didn’t speak. I had my head bowed down low as the judge handed me down my sentence.

“You are sentenced to one year probation and community service,” he said, “your probation officer will make living arrangements for you and set you up with an organization for positive reintegration into society as well as counselling to help you cope with trauma you’ve endured in your life.”

The food bank was where I was sent for a year. I tackled it head on. I didn’t pass up any chance I got to help someone because I knew too well what it was like to be in their shoes; lonely, hungry, looked down upon, hopeless. I was so good at my job that I got a promotion to manager even though I didn’t get paid. When my time was almost over I got a chance to help other troubled souls as they were given community service at the food bank too. One young woman named Celina even volunteered at the food bank when her brother was given community service there just to keep him company and be a shoulder to cry on for him. I never told them how much it actually reminded me of who Tamerlane used to be to me but I tried to make it obvious with each breath I took. All I did, I did in memory of him. Most days I in fact felt too small to change a life. I wasn’t a warrior, never had been, never would be, even if I had that word tattooed on my wrist in Arabic.

“Caroline,” one of my coworkers barged into the back office one afternoon as I was doing some paperwork, “you will not believe this!”

“What’s going on?” I asked in a monotone voice, not particularly interested in what was going on in front since I didn’t work that position anymore.

“There are some people here, who have some six- figure income at the end of the year and they say that they don’t have enough to eat. They won’t leave until they talk to the manager.”

“Alright, I’m coming.”

I smacked the pen down on the desk and dragged my feet down the little hallway up until I arrived at the counter in the front. Sure enough, there was a man and a woman with three kids standing there, sticking out like sore thumbs because they were particularly well dressed compared to everyone else who usually walked through those doors to get a free bag of food upon approval. Two of my coworkers had their arms crossed and frowns on their faces as they all waited for me to send them away. There wasn’t much I’d be able to do that they hadn’t already done, but I figured that I should at least listen to their side of the story first.

“Are you the manager?” the man asked me in a foreign accent.

“Yes,” I replied in a bleak tone of voice as I walked over to where they were standing.

A little dark-haired boy with big brown eyes took cover behind his mother’s leg once I got too close. He seemed particularly shy, even afraid maybe. I couldn’t help but think back to the very first time I had met little Tamerlane Rodriguez in the park. He had once been a little shy kid who didn’t even look at me, but had grown up to be a bold young man who was very affectionate around his loved ones but still somewhat reserved around strangers. A young man who believed in justice and making things right, who had since become an angel in heaven.

“What’s your name?” I asked the boy as I kneeled down close to him.

At first he didn’t speak. He looked fearfully at me for a few moments until I extended my hand towards him in hopes that it would motivate him to come out of his shell.

“It’s Tamerlane.”

Posted in Islam & Interfaith Subjects

Muslims and the Bible

In certain parts of the world like North Korea and Saudi Arabia you can be executed for having a Bible. In many so-called “Muslim” nations Christians are persecuted and Jews are purged from the land completely. Yet Prophet Muhammad loved Jews and Christians and the Quran calls them the People of the Book, not infidels or unbelievers. It’s a long held belief within the Muslim community that the Bible has been corrupted, and while I do have some problems with the Bible and modern Christianity, that will be examined in a future post. Here I will look solely at what the Quran had to say about the Bible and how Muslims should see it.

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And We caused Jesus, son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps, confirming that which was (revealed) before him in the Torah, and We bestowed on him the Gospel wherein is guidance and a light, confirming that which was (revealed) before it in the Torah – a guidance and an admonition unto those who ward off (evil). (Quran 5:46).

It’s an unfortunate sentiment today that Muslims hate Christians or Jesus. The truth is that Muslims love Jesus. Jesus came to fulfill the Jewish law and the Quran came to confirm the Bible. The Quran speaks favorably of the Bible and Islam follows all of the prophets, from Abraham to Jesus.

It is He Who sent down to thee (step by step), in truth, the Book, confirming what went before it; and He sent down the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before this, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong). (Quran 3:3).

The Quran calls the Bible, or parts at least parts of it, a light (5:44), an example (11:17), and a warning (17:4). It also states that the authors of the Bible were inspired (4:163; 5:111). In addition, Islam holds the Torah, the Psalms and the Gospel of Jesus sacred to its faith and believing in these books is an essential part of the faith. I should note that the Gospel is the one given to Jesus, not the ones written about him, but nonetheless many of his teachings have been preserved. Contrary to popular belief, the Quran does not undo the previous scriptures it confirms them and weeds out the truth from the falsehood:

And We have revealed to you, (O Muhammad), the Book in truth, confirming that which preceded it of the Scripture and as a criterion over it. (Quran 5:48)

In addition to the Torah, Psalms and Gospel, the Quran also mentions the following people from the Bible:

  • Aaron
  • Abel
  • Abraham
  • Amram
  • Cain
  • David
  • The Apostles
  • Eber
  • Elijah
  • Elisha
  • Enoch
  • Ezekiel
  • Ezra
  • Gabriel
  • Gog and Magog
  • Goliath
  • Haman
  • Isaac
  • Ishmael
  • Jacob
  • Jethro
  • Reuel
  • Hobab
  • Jesus
  • Joachim
  • Job
  • John the Baptist
  • Jonah
  • Joseph (and his brothers)
  • Korah
  • Lot (and his wife)
  • Mary
  • Miriam
  • Michael
  • Moses
  • Noah
  • Pharaoh
  • Potiphar (and his wife)
  • The Queen of Sheba
  • Samuel
  • King Saul
  • Satan
  • Shem
  • Ham
  • Japheth
  • Solomon
  • Terah
  • Zechariah
  • Zimri

People mentioned but unnamed include the following:

  • Eve
  • Sarah
  • Zipporah
  • Jochebed
  • Elizabeth

Now that is a significant part of the Bible narrative also present in the Quran in one form or another. There is nothing in the Quran that prohibits a Muslim from reading or learning from the Bible. In fact, I’ve seen many books that have stories from the Bible and Quran side by side so you can compare and contrast what the two say. On that note it’s important to say that reading the Bible as Muslim should enhance your Islamic experience, not lead you astray. One Hadith cautions against reading the Bible if you are weak in faith or have no previous knowledge of what is true and false but to those who seek to deepen their Islamic faith, the Bible is a valuable tool!

One should note that at the time of Muhammad, the Christian Bible included a section called the Apocrypha, which is no longer part of the modern Bible except in a few select churches. There are also several other texts including the Pseudepigrapha that were circulating around churches at various points over the course of history but that have been excluded from the modern Biblical canon. The Dead Sea Scrolls are also an important discovery when it comes to Bible history and the origins of both Christianity and Islam. You can view the different Bible canons throughout the major traditional churches on Wikipedia.

The important thing to remember here is that the Quran has the final authority over the previous texts, just like the previous texts have authority over the ones that came before them. Keep an open mind and do some historical and theological research when it comes to these texts and the stories mentioned in them from various reputable sources. As a Muslim myself, it’s important for me to also be familiar with the Bible not only to deepen my understanding regarding the roots of my Abrahamic faith and where the prophets come from, but also to promote good and strong interfaith relations with Christians and Jews within the community. We live in a day and age where such things are more crucial than ever and a good place to start is with what we have in common.

So unless you have doubts in faith or your government will kill you for it, as a Muslim you have no reason not to read and study the previous scriptures too.