It was a hot one when the sun came up. I sat up on top of a big green container, couldn’t touch it with my exposed skin in fear that it would char my hands. Just before noon we said goodbye to Rob. They said goodbye to Rob. I avoided the whole thing and sat by the containers as I always did when they boys were saying their goodbyes to the others. Byron was the first to come back and join me. Byron was always the first one. I was becoming uneasy about time. I was growing uneasy about myself. About everything. Life. Death. Heaven. Hell. Something had to give. Something had to give.
“Are you okay?” Byron asked in his tender voice, “I know these are tough times for you.”
“Tough is an understatement,” I replied looking into his deep green eyes, “but I’m fine.”
I actually forced a smile.
“I’m just so sick of feeling so helpless all the time,” I continued, “something’s gotta give.”
Byron did not speak, he simply looked at me with those sympathetic green eyes. The soft green eyes of a preacher’s son. Unable to retain my emotions any longer, I pulled him into a tight embrace. I buried my face into his chest — or more like his smelly shirt — and let his tight hold soothe me. I was getting too warm in my black sweatshirt and my orange prison pants way too big for me. Jeff had gotten the ugly sweatpants from the Salvation Army and I had inherited of them after he died. They looked like the remnants of a recycled prison jumpsuit and weren’t very comfortable but they were somehow my favorite pants. They had looked good on Jeff, blaze orange gave him life. But the garb looked terrible on me. I shoved the bottoms in my boots as much as I could and used a piece of yellow rope to keep them around my waste. But it worked, and I didn’t want to wear anything else.
“I’m sorry to disturb your moment,” Eddie began, “but we should to fetch some food now that it’s lunchtime. People have just thrown out the rest of their TV dinners and it’s time to snatch them.”
We crammed Ritchie’s and Shannon’s cars and drove back into the city. The restaurant-goers had indeed thrown out the rest of their perfectly good meals so we prowled the streets and looked into garbage cans to find some. When we had nothing to eat, we usually just ransacked a corner store or broke into somebody’s house to eat and then leave. As simple as that! No harm done and no remorse involved. Everybody deserved to eat, whether they had to pay for their food or not. Jeff used to say, if there was nothing wrong there would be nothing right. It was just the way it was done on the street. Yeah, there were soup kitchens and homeless shelters but when living the life it’s best you stay on your own turf. I sat on Byron and stared out the window as the buildings flew by. I assumed that’s what you got for being the smallest person in a group. I really missed sitting on Jeff.
Trash bins were my speciality. I could fit in the tightest of places and reach down to the very bottom and grab the items nobody else could. At least that was one good thing about being small. In New York what you found, you kept. You picked it up, it was yours. No questions asked. So rummaging through garbage wasn’t anything bad. There wasn’t anything wrong with it. One man’s junk is another man’s treasure! And you wouldn’t believe the kind of food them rich capitalists had absolutely no problem throwing out instead of giving it to some random old homeless dude on the sidewalk. We pulled up behind a restaurant and I slowly creepy crawled into the industrial trash bin where brand new bags of trash had just been thrown out. And I dived in.
“Hey Ritchie!” I called out, “Pass me a bag I found some stuff down here!”
I picked up a few half-eaten hamburgers and some fries. I hated hamburgers but I ate them anyway. Otherwise I wouldn’t’ve had anything to eat. After finding enough food for the day and eating most of it on the spot, we jumped back in the car and brought the remnants to Lennie’s house. Lennie still lived in his same large loft in which he used to live in with his wife and kids before his lifelong love had died and his adult children moved away. All of us had suffered great losses in our lives but theirs seemed to be irrelevant next to mine. It was selfish for me to think that way, but that’s the way it was. Back at his loft I pigged out some more in potato chips and old pop tarts found in the cabinets. I always ate to the point that I’d want to puke if I put something else in my mouth for the simple reason that I could. I knew too well that some people died of starvation so I didn’t deprive myself of eating when I could. Call it gluttony and a sin but it made me feel better about myself.
“Why do I feel like a murderer?” I blurted out.
“Because… you’re with some?” Eddie theorized.
“Or because you want to kill,” Ritchie added.
“We all have a murderer inside of us, somewhere,” I contemplated, “but I think I like Richard’s theory the best.”
“Well, what are you waiting for?” he demanded.
He was right. What the hell was I waiting for? Jeff to come back to life? If so I would wait for one hell of a long time. Jerk from Portland, Oregon named Dwayne Jackson murdered my brother that I loved so much. The then thirty-three-year-old Washington Heights city council member and bakery owner senselessly took the one life that meant something to me. I’d always wanted to avenge my brother after that. I wanted the 5’8” and 286 pound man’s head. His hard brown eyes showed no mercy and only delight from his actions. His short dark brown hair balding in most places looked like a pile of shit smeared on the top of his fat head. It matched with his ugly face. I thought of scaring the two children he had left, Stephen and Lisa but it would be too obvious who was responsible for it. Even if it wasn’t me who terrorized him, I would be the one to blame. Just like Jeff.
What was I waiting for? Seriously, what? Even Byron had killed people. Ritchie and Nick had made him do it even if he didn’t want to. It was all a part of acceptance, inauguration if you wanna call it that. If a small gang like ours was going to survive, there was going to be blood. Jeff had killed. Why didn’t I? I had pondered the question the entire way to Lennie’s in fact. I was the only one who’d had a free pass. I still hadn’t found a good answer, Byron and I decided to take a walk instead of laying down after eating too fast for our own good. I needed air anyway, desperately. We walked in awkward silence for a while, without speaking. Things were mostly always awkward between Byron and I although he was very pleasant to be with. We shared an uncommon bond. The one of a murder. So I decided to pop the question.
“What does it feel to kill a person?” I asked, intrigued.
“It really corrupts a person,” he replied darkly, not finishing his sentence.
“Do you get any pleasure or satisfaction out of it?”
“You might want to ask Richard or Nick that question, but for me there wasn’t. I regret everything.”
I took his hand into mine and squeezed it tightly.
“I know Byron,” I continued, “but you were brought here for a reason.”
“I know,” he agreed, showing me his usual warm smile, “it may sound crazy but I know God sent me here for a reason.”
“Do you have any theories?”
“Maybe just that you should be a scientist because you like theories.”
We both laughed at once. Byron had never finished school either.
“But on a more serious note,” he went on, “I don’t have anything solid. Maybe just that one of you can be spared.”
Spared. Jeff could’ve been spared.
“Now tell me your theory on wanting to kill a person,” he continued, intrigued.
“Well,” I sighed, “it’s Jeff. It’s been almost three years to the day and I just can’t get him off my mind. It’s eternal torment, pure torture. Something’s gotta give.”
“So, if I get this straight, you want to kill Dwayne Jackson and Greg Holliday?”
“I don’t know, but it sure would be nice to have them freaking gone!”
“Don’t get into that stuff, you still have a chance at life.”
“I don’t care. I need to do something. Jeff would’ve done something if it was me.”
Tears filled my eyes and rage filled my heart. Jeff’s death had been way too hard on me. I couldn’t move on but I couldn’t go back either. Every time I looked into the mirror and pushed back my hair out of my face, I could only see a reflection of Jeff. He was the most beautiful between the two of us. He had always been. I didn’t have a single picture of him left. Some said that there was a picture of him on the headstone his grave but others said there wasn’t a headstone at all. I had never been there to look myself. He was buried in Cobalt-On-The-Lake, which was quite far away when on foot through the vineyards. I had never even to Cobalt-On-The-Lake, didn’t even know where the cemetery was and even less on which lot Jeff was buried. One thing I did know, though, was that he had been cremated and I wore his urn tag around my neck everyday.
It was Eddie who had given it to me after his funeral. He was still employed as a mechanic at the time — that’s where the coveralls came from — and had skipped work just to come give me the medallion. A few weeks later he was fired. Somehow his boss found out that he was stealing auto parts and selling them for his own person profit and fired him on the spot. Eddie supposedly told him to shove it and left the building, with a bagful of coveralls, and never returned. I had never asked him about it but I always admired him for stepping up and showing that stupid boss of his what he was made of.
Apart from Ritchie, Eddie was the only one who had managed to keep a job for more than a few weeks. Richard had worked in a pizzeria for a just a little over three months with Jeff but was fired too after he was caught masturbating with the pizza dough. I couldn’t help but laugh every time I thought of that. Good for him! By the time Byron and I had finished our little walk around the area and returned to Lennie’s, the boys had finished devouring the rest of the trashcan food I had picked up and Shannon gave us the remaining two pieces of bread — all that was left. I let Byron eat all of it because I wasn’t hungry anymore.
“That’s all you’re gonna get,” she said in an apathetic tone of voice, “if you wanna eat you know you gotta be present.”
Don’t worry, I know.
“You should eat,” Byron reminded me, “you’re only 88 pounds.”
“That’s 89, Byron,” I replied, not wanting to hear it.
“Whichever it is, you’re extremely thin and you should eat,” he insisted.
Most of the time he and Eddie had to force-feed me as best as they could against my will but in the recent weeks they had been pretty easy about it and let it go most of the time. They probably had finally understood that it wasn’t doing me any good anyway. All they did since they had stopped the force-feeding was hand me some pieces of cheese, they knew I would eat it. Cheese was my favorite food in the whole world. Peanut butter the second, and raspberries the third. Jeffrey always made sure I had some to eat, no matter how expensive or hard to find they were, he always made sure I had some raspberries.
“Please eat a slice,” Byron pressed on as he handed me a piece of stale white bread.
“Fine,” I muttered as I took the slice and left.
Apparently he’d conveniently forgotten that I’d eaten not too long ago, but then again maybe I hadn’t eaten enough for him. I sat on the roof of Lennie’s loft while the boys inside conversed about their plans for the night. I really wasn’t in the mood to go out and vandalize people’s home or watch one of them dupe prostitutes and take their money. Not that it bothered me, but I was tired, lethargic. I wanted to sleep, and to sleep well.
“What you doing up there?” I hadn’t noticed Eddie behind me.
“Oh, nothing,” I replied blankly, “just relaxing I guess.”
“Byron was telling me about your murder fantasies.”
“Yeah, I’m sure he did.”
“Don’t do that honey.”
“Why not? You already got eight under your belt!”
“I’m a serial murderer and it’s not something I’m proud of.”
“I know you’re not Eddie but I’m here right now, so why should I just watch? You guys made Byron kill people.”
“Richard wanted to make the kid grow some balls — and he did — but you’re Jeffrey’s little sister. We made him a promise when he brought you here.”
“It’s irrelevant now, he’s dead.”
“He might be dead but he’s always going to watch over you.”
“Don’t try to preach that crap to me Eddie, he’s gone it ends there.”
Eddie was a smart man, and he knew when to shut his mouth. He did not speak another word about Jeffrey, he knew he couldn’t win against me when it came to that. He was right about the promise though. Everyone had promise to keep me out of harm’s way and a life of crime and murder when Jeff didn’t have the choice but to bring me to New York. I had to promise to finish school too. They had never let me kill anyone, but so much for the rest. So much for not breaking in, traumatizing people and ransacking their property and stealing their money. So much for not quitting school. So much for lies and broken promises.
“You know Eddie,” I admitted in a soft tone of voice, “you’re a nice guy.”
“Thanks kid,” he replied, satisfied with himself, “you were a sweet little girl to be around. You still are.”
I smiled, for real, for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.
“I’ll have to admit it to myself someday, but I like you.”
“Feeling is mutual kid. Always been.”
“I’m fond of you in a bizarre way, ‘cause I don’t really know you but we’ve through so many things together and there is this tenderness to you that they don’t have.”
“There’s something inside all of us Ana, maybe they just don’t show it all the time.”
“Yeah I know Eddie, but you always consider me when they don’t.”
“They consider you, believe me they do, but you’re one touchy little shit!”
We both chuckled at once. Eddie was right.
“Yeah I am, but only when they tell me crap about Jeff.”
“It may not look like that, but they don’t do it to hurt you.”
“I know they don’t Eddie, deep inside I know, but they are just so freaking clueless. You have brains and it’s obvious.”
Eddie laughed, but he knew it was the truth.
“And I don’t feel like going on one of their crime sprees tonight and tomorrow.” I grumbled on, “I’m tired and I want to sleep.”
“No worries there girl,” Eddie reassured me, “I’ll stay with you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“I want to. I know you can’t sleep alone and Jeff would do the same thing if he was still here. Those punks have enough men for a robbery tonight.”
I swallowed hard as a huge lump formed in my throat. Only Eddie could speak about Jeff in such a way that didn’t always make me angry. I choked as I held back some tears but they manage to escape from my eyes anyway. I broke into an uncontrollable sob when Eddie wrapped his arms around me and pulled me into a tight hug. He kissed my forehead and I buried my face into his chest, no longer able to control the rush of emotion.
“I feel like such a wimp to cry like this.” I muttered out angrily, disgusted with my outburst.
“There ain’t nothing wrong with crying honey,” Eddie spoke to me in an unusually tender voice, “you never let yourself grieve. You need to let that out.”
“This life almost killed me after I lost Jeff.”
“I know, I know. I’ll never forget the screams that came out of your little mouth that day. I had never heard such a sound in my life before.”
A horrorstruck grimace appeared on Eddie’s face as the bitter memories replayed in his head. I avoided that dark place in my mind completely. I did not want to go there. I wiped the few tears that had slipped out of my eyes and broke out of Eddie’s strong hold. Nobody had held me like that in a long time, but I avoided thinking about the last time someone had to use force on me. I did not want to go there. I would do anything just not to go there.
“Hey y’all up on the roof!” Lennie’s voice called from inside the loft, “Come back down!”
Eddie and I looked into each other’s eyes for a fraction of a second before climbing down from the roof and entering the living room by the same window we had used to climb out onto the roof. I had not seen the girls leave in their car, but they were long gone, and most of the boys were sound asleep in the middle of the afternoon.
“You two should rest up so you can have some energy for tonight,” the old man added.
“We’re not going.” Eddie told him sternly.
“No, we’re going to have some sleep and some time to reflect tonight. We both need it.”
“Well, y’all are welcome to stay here tonight if you want.”
Eddie looked at me, asking for my approval.
“We’ll take Eddie’s old shack,” I told Cap’n Crunch, “that’s where we’re headed this evening anyway.”
That was a lie of course, but I did not want to be bothered by them punks making carnage in the middle of the night when they got back from their spree. They always had a nasty way of waking up everyone in the house when they returned with some trophies. They could never wait until morning to show us what they had come home with. It was always right now. Instant gratification. I didn’t remember the last time I had a decent night of sleep, but I was determined to have one in the near future.
“They’re big boys, they’ll make it through a weekend without you and me,” Eddie smiled sympathetically at me, like only he could do when no one understood what I was going through.
“Ya wanna go back to the city?” I asked Eddie without emotion.
“What you wanna do there, kid?”
“Just get away from here maybe?”
“Sure. Sounds like a good idea, but we’re gonna hafta walk there.”
“Yeah, no worries, I have legs.”
“It’s a two hour walk back to the shack if you want to go there.”
“Yeah, sure, that sounds nice. I want to be quiet for a while. It hasn’t been quiet around here in too long.”
Eddie bursted out laughing.
“You know you’re right,” he continued, still laughing, “it’s never very quiet around here.”
“Talk about an understatement!” I laughed too.
“I miss the quiet too sometimes.”
“I miss my mind sometimes.”
“You know it’s not too late to get out of this.”
“Apparently nothing is ever too late, but I have no interest in living in a big fancy mansion with people I don’t even know.”
“You’d rather settle for my dirty old shack that’s falling apart?”
“As long as I’m with you guys, yeah, I would.”
Eddie placed one arm around my shoulder in one swift motion as we were walking down the driveway of Lennie’s place. The early afternoon sun was incredibly warm, too warm. I hadn’t seen the sunlight in quite a while after some storm systems that caused a lot of flooding and endless rain even after the flood waters had subsided.
“You know,” I went on, “sometimes I just get so tired of this lifestyle though.”
Eddie listened attentively.
“I mean, sometimes I feel bad because I don’t feel bad, if that makes any sense.”
“Yeah, I can understand.”
“I’ve seen people get killed, murdered, and some shit like that and I don’t even cringe! And I wanna do it too!”
“I know Ana, I know. Every time you say that, I think about Byron, and I think about the look you had on your face when you ran over to him like that. I’ll never forget that one either.”
I swallowed hard, Byron was alive because of me. Sometimes I thought that he would’ve been better off dead but I was very fond of him and he was pleasant to be with. If I had taken pity for Byron five years ago, then why couldn’t I take pity for another human being in the present set of circumstances, innocent or not? Maybe because my own innocence had been taken away.
“I guess I have murderer’s blood running through my veins, look where my father is and how Jeff ended up.”
“Don’t speak badly of your brother Ana.”
“Everyone else does!”
“He was a good man, a very soft character forced into a life of crime. You don’t know how scared he was and how much he regretted it.”
“He didn’t seem to have remorse to me.”
“His face never gave anything away but he was so scared, it tormented him day and night but he finally came to accept that he had already done it once and he could do it again. This is the life we have to live.”
“That’s exactly why I said he was without remorse.”
“He did have some, a lot. I know, because I’ve seen it, I’ve seen what it did to him to kill people like that. It no longer horrified him but he cried a lot after every single one.”
It seemed to hurt Eddie on some unspoken level to talk about Jeff, almost as much as it hurt me. Or maybe it was just because he knew it hurt me.
“He did?” I was surprised.
“Yeah,” Eddie’s voice was husky, “he did. Maybe not right after the murder took place but he did. We have to find a way to survive out here. Unfortunately this is what we’ve been handed as a way of life. The only way to get out is to die.”
“There ain’t no God on these streets.”
“There ain’t nothing but hate on these streets.”