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.”
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.”
“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?”