I had no idea the kind of burial my brother really had been given until I stumbled into the charity area of the boneyard. His grave was the very first one next to the little paved path about halfway through the cemetery, on the far left side. At first the place looked like an empty field with nobody buried there yet, but that was a far cry from the truth. The place was filled with many unmarked graves. Only little rectangles of concrete were flat over each grave with only a last name and a number. That was all that was left of my brother. Just a last name and a number.
And nothing else. As a matter of fact, how did I know it was even him? How could I know? Anybody could have our last name and have a first name that started with J! Was it even his cardboard box of ashes that they put in that plot? I fell down on my knees over his grave and broke down in an uncontrollable sob.
“Does it hurt when you breathe Jeff?!” I choked out through my tears, “Because it hurts when I do!”
I never got the chance to say goodbye to you. Is there really a life after death? Is it true what Byron tells me about seeing you again once all of this is over? When you’re young life is a dream, but when you get older you realize that there’s nothing to be seen. The light will never touch your face again. Now that you’re gone somewhere far beyond this world, I’m alone out here. Is anybody there? Does anyone care? The world will never know you like I do, Jeff. Nobody will ever love me like you did. Nothing in this life will ever fill the void that Dwayne Jackson created inside of me. That is the reason why I have to do this now. You are the reason things have to change Jeff. You are the reason I cannot turn back now.
“I am so sorry Jeff! I am so so sorry!” I muttered out as I took a deep, painful breath, “It should’ve been me instead of you! It should’ve been me and not you.”
For a moment I considered again pulling out my gun and pulling my brains out right then and there so I could be with him for eternity but I couldn’t bring myself to be such a coward. I couldn’t turn back without having gotten the answers I set out to find. Why did Dwayne Jackson have to kill my brother? Why did he want to kill me? What did it serve him? What did it leave me? Most importantly, how was I going to get him back? Because I couldn’t let him get away with the murder of my brother.
“I’ve gotta go Jeffrey, I’m sorry I can’t stay with you. I’ve got a mission to do. One that I have set out to do for you. Goodbye. I love you.”
And so I collected myself, got up, and started walking again. I wanted to turn back so badly and just forget everything, put it behind me, but there was no doing that. Despite the fact that Cobalt was nothing but a small town, I didn’t really know my way around it. It was spread out across miles and miles with nothing but rural roads and trees and vineyards and industrial lands and a billabong somewhere in the middle of that left by a massive flood in the early 1900s. I knew my way around Yonkers and most of upper Bronx though. Those were usually the places we hung out around, not the outskirts of Cobalt except for the factory lot, but nobody wanted to go back inside that building. All I had to do was find my way out of the village and find my way to Dwayne Jackson. The only thing that was left for me to do was find my way up to Washington Heights, pull the trigger, and deal with whatever resulted of that.
Once again all the streets seemed to be the same. I seemed only to be going round and round in circles again. Big buildings, small buildings, fancy buildings, abandoned buildings. Brown bricks. Concrete bricks. Missing bricks. Vacant lots. Dirt roads and paved ones, white Mercedes-Benz cars and black Ford trucks. I had no idea if I was coming or going or even moving at all. What if I was just kidding myself by creating some illusion of progress? What if I was nothing? What if I was never able to get to where I was going? It didn’t seem to matter what I tried to do to keep the doubts and the fear out of my mind, they always found a way back inside. For the first time I was truly alone. There was no Jeff, no Eddie, no Ricardo. Just me. For the past three years I had grossly failed to realize what those boys really meant to me.
Dear Jeff, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you. I would lie. I would cheat. I would steal. I would kill. I would die. I would do it all for you my brother. I would break. I would crash and burn. I would suffer. I would do anything just to have you back for one more moment. I don’t expect the world to understand this. The colors that this place shines surely aren’t the nicest that I’ve ever seen. Oh Jeff, don’t let me be lonely out here on my own. For you I would burn this whole world down. Light it up and sit back and watch the glow of the flames reaching up all the way to heaven. They say that everything black turns to grey and everything beautiful fades away. The radiance inside your eyes had never faded from my mind and this hatred has never faded from my heart. I am already dead. I will only rise to fall again. There’s no turning back now. That’s a choice I made long ago. Now I have some clarity to show you what I mean.
Eventually, after hours, if not days of walking, I came to a secluded neighborhood behind a lonely railroad. The rails were always there, but the trains seem to have followed the underground railroad because they weren’t around anymore. I first passed by several streets of run-down houses and low-income families before reaching the end of the very last stretch of road. It was just like in the movies where a poor neighborhood is built on a rich neighborhood. Or is it the rich that do that to the poor? But right in the middle of the street the two merged. Suddenly the shacks falling apart met houses with triple garages, backyard pools the size of New York City and driveways longer than the road I had walked lined with more cars than anyone could ever use in a lifetime. I should have been appalled by what I saw, but I wasn’t. People who like to use fancy wording would call that being desensitized but I called it life. By that point I was so thirsty that I actually considered siphoning some gasoline out of one of them fancy ass cards and quench my thirst and just freaking die. It would have been a preferable alternative than dying of thirst.
About halfway down the street, right next to a big fancy grey brick house there was a medium-sized duplex with pink and white bricks and behind it a trench filled with water. It was the only middle-class building in the entire neighborhood, and I guess that it was right in the middle of the rich and the poor for a reason. But what I wanted more than a lavish lifestyle was the dirty water sitting in that trench in between the two properties. I walked over there without hesitation and threw myself on the damp ground near the trench, bent over on my knees and dunked my entire head underwater. I opened my mouth and swallowed some with a loud gulp before pulling out my head and letting the cold water drip all over my clothes.
“Well you sure look like you could use a drink!” a man with a Scottish accent called out from behind me, “Let me get you something.”
I turned around, expecting some dude dressed in a fancy suit giving me a drink and telling me to get lost and to never set foot on his property again, but the man wasn’t like that. He was an older man, grey hair, matching grey stubble, dark blue eyes with big bags under his eyes like he hadn’t sleep in centuries and some casual clothes. There was a black oil stain on his faded blue jeans and I noticed that the nearby garage was open and he had some sort of industrial project going on in there with big creepy machines that looked like the kind that you use to build stuff. The man’s dark blue shirt was clean but it didn’t look new. He introduced himself as Robin Crowley, from some English place that ended in shire somewhere far away from New York. He walked over to me and handed me a can of club soda that wasn’t too tasty to drink but I felt better almost immediately. I gulped down the whole can in only a few sips before standing up and walking over closer to the man.
“Do you want another one?” he asked me already knowing what the answer to that was going to be, “Come inside there’s plenty more to drink.”
I deliberated with myself for a few seconds as I trailed behind him to his side of the house weather or not I should go in with him but I reminded that I had a loaded gun in my pocket. I could make that man do anything I wanted him to by putting it to his head. So I decided to follow him inside the narrow entrance of the right side of the building. Immediately we were in a small kitchen with blue tiles everywhere and natural wood cabinets in one corner and the appliances in another with a tiny dark brown wood table right in the middle. It was covered in power tools and stuff like nails and screws and other creepy little gadgets. Robin brought me to the adjacent room which was a comfortable little living room with a very clean white carpet, two leather couches and a colossal flatscreen TV mounted on the wall. Dark drapes covered the windows so nobody could see in or out of the living room. I figured that Robin Crowley was a man that valued his privacy in a neighborhood where everything was probably nothing more than a big fake joke of a competition just to be better than the guy that lives next door.
“Here’s some tea dear,” Robin gently spoke in an almost whisper as he handed me a cup of what looked like green tea.
I took a sip and yup, it was green tea. I hated that crap. But I drank it anyway. If I was desperate enough to drink some of that nasty water in the trench, I could easily drink some of Mr. Crowley’s warm green tea prepared with love just for me.
“I have to go finish up a project in the garage,” he went on, “I need to bring it to work tomorrow but please feel free to take a shower and put on something warm. We can get you some more clothes later on, I just need to finish this first.”
I nodded my head as he put on a plaid jacket and walked through the door, gently closing it behind him and leaving me the entire place to myself not knowing if I would find something of value or even a stash of money and run off with it. That idea was quite tempting but I was paranoid of getting into some petty trouble before having had the chance to carry out my mission. I started rummaging through the fridge for something to eat that wasn’t disgusting or taken out of a garbage can. Downtown people threw their unwanted food out their windows as they drove down the street but in the outskirts of God knows where, I wasn’t so lucky.
And where the hell am I exactly?
I was incredibly dirty so I stripped off all my clothes in the kitchen as I filled the large stainless steel sink with warm water. I rummaged through the counter until I found two brand new bottles of flower-smelling purple dish soap and started pouring some of it in the sink until enormous bubbles started to overflow everywhere. I sat down on the counter, put my freezing feet in the water, took some towels and indulged in a sponge bath. Water and bubbles overflowed everywhere onto the counter and the carpet and the floor but the experience was incredible. Real soap, clean warm water, nothing to worry about. After I was done washing myself I picked up my clothes off the floor and dunked them in the remainder of the water. I washed my clothes as best as I could before letting it dry on top of the back of the chairs and finally dunking my boots in the water. I was scrubbing with sponges and towels, still wearing nothing, when I heard the door slam behind me.
“What in the world are you doing?!” Robin’s voice was shocked.
I was standing in his kitchen completely naked, with all my clothes wet except my Pennington’s hoodie concealing a handgun folded on top of the kitchen table. For a fraction of a second I searched my mind for something to say but the only thing I could think of was GET THE HOODIE BEFORE HE FINDS THE GUN! So that’s what I did. I bolted for the kitchen table and grabbed my hoodie in a fury before he could make a move. I put it on as fast as I could and put my hand in my right pocket. My gun was still there. Robin Crowley hadn’t moved a single muscle. It was nothing but my paranoia of failing my mission settling in. Robin was not out to get me.
“Come here I’ll get you something decent to wear.”
I followed him into his bedroom where he pulled out the first shirt and underwear he found in his drawers and handed me the clothes.
“I’ll properly wash yours,” he said softly, seemingly taking pity on me, “you can wear this in the meantime.”
You know, the way I wash my clothes does just fine Mr. Crowley.
“Thank you,” I blandly whispered in return as I sat down on his bed and put on the clothes.
The white briefs were enormous but I managed to make them stay. The shirt was more like a dress too but it was definitely more decent than being naked. I buttoned up the brown shirt and looked at myself in the mirror behind the closed bedroom door. I didn’t look all that awful. My hair was decent and the clothes, well, they were Robin’s clothes. I dug up some socks from the bottom drawer of his dresser and put them on and unrolled them all the way up to my knees. Next up I looked through the closet for a hat and some sunglasses and paraded for myself in front of the mirror. I dug through some more clothes and switched up my outfit again once my little parading around was over and I started again. I eventually ended up with a camouflage coat and an NYPD hat so I took out my handgun and pointed it at the mirror. I looked pretty badass.
“This is it,” I whispered to myself, “the apocalypse.”
Afterwards I took off all the clothes and tried to put it back where I took it and put back on the original clothes Robin had given me to wear. I grinned at myself in the mirror one last time and for the first time since I had set out on my mission things weren’t so bad. I had fun playing dress up, like teenage kids are supposed to.
“Mr. Crowley, are my clothes dry?” I asked as I walked into the living room where he was sitting, “I should get going soon.”
“I’ve just put them in a dryer love,” he replied gently, “but you know you don’t have to go! At least have a bite to eat and spend the night! Tomorrow before work I’ll bring you to the train station if you want.”
I contemplated his offer for a moment. After all I did need to get to Washington Heights. But more importantly, where the hell was I anyway?”
“Uh, yeah, sure,” I mumbled out, “and by the way, which city is this?”
“We are in Pigeon Creek, New York, dear. The municipality has been amalgamated with Croton-On-Hudson so if you need something we’ll have to take a little ten-minute drive to the downtown.”
“How far is Croton-On-Hudson from Cobalt?”
“Half an hour by car I’d imagine. Is that where you need to go?”
“Oh God! I’ve been out here for days and I’ve only made it to here?! But no, I need to get to Washington Heights.”
“I’ll take you there no problem dear.”
I agreed to Robin’s proposition and we made arrangements to get me to Washington Heights first thing after breakfast in the morning. In the meantime, Robin took me downtown Croton-On-Hudson to buy me some new clothes since he said that mine were rags. Yes, I had had them for years, probably most of my life, and they were quite torn but they were still very much wearable. I wore them to the store and some people looked in my direction in disgust since Croton and Pigeon Creek were mostly upper-middle class communities without people like me. People looked at me like I was either an alien that landed from another planet or a domestic terrorist looking to hijack a shopping mall. But all of that crap didn’t stop Robin Crowley and I from going on a little shopping trip.
“Here, I’ll give this to you while it’s on my mind,” Robin told me as he handed me a twenty dollar bill, “in case Washington Heights doesn’t pan out and you need to come back.”
“Thank you Mr. Crowley,” I replied apathetically, “but once I get to Washington Heights I will not be coming back.”
I skipped the part regarding why that was.
“Ready to do some shopping?”
“Rock and roll!”
The two of us started by visiting a few downtown shops selling your average clothes. Not the thrift store but not the Queen of England’s wardrobe either. Robin pressured me to buy myself at least two complete outfits but I hadn’t shopped for clothes in such a long time that I didn’t even know what I was supposed to look at in the shops. So I started by checking out the price tag on a black windbreaker but it indicated $130 so I moved on to looking at something else.
“Did you like that jacket Anastasia?” Robin asked as he trailed behind me.
“I don’t like the price tag,” I replied in a neutral tone, “that’s all.”
“Come on! I’ll buy it for you anyway. That’s why I brought you here didn’t I?”
“Mr. Crowley, I didn’t agree to this to ruin you.”
“I have more than I could ever need. It’s you and me now, come on, bring the coat.”
He twisted my arm and finally I just grabbed the jacket and lugged it around over my shoulder as I looked at the other clothing in the store. Robin went on and on about how the cold weather would soon be moving in and I should pick out a hat for myself and some new boots and blah blah blah. I nodded my head every time Robin asked if I liked something just to save everyone unnecessary trouble. There was a part of me that felt guilty to just let a complete stranger spend money on me without having anything but a bullet to give in return. I stuck my hand in my pocket and ran my fingers over my gun. I needed to find a way to Washington Heights before the morning because the weight of the situation was really starting to fall over my head.
“Let’s head to the mall a little further downtown for some shoes?” Mr. Crowley glanced at me in approval as he gave his credit card to the clerk in order to pay for my clothes.
“Yeah,” I replied looking in another direction, “sure.”
The two of us walked two blocks to a small strip mall with a bunch of women’s fashion stores and outlets. It wasn’t really my style but I went anyway. What did I have to lose? There was no other way I was going to get that kind of clothes otherwise!
“Shoe store first.” I muttered to Robin as he walked up to the front of the mall.
He nodded at me and we walked in to a small shoe shop where they sold almost every kind of shoe imaginable as well as making custom footwear for people with fat wallets. I spent most of my time glancing out the window instead of looking at the actual shoes. My boots were fine. And I wanted out of Croton-On-Hudson.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” I told Robin as he was chatting with the clerk, looking for a particular kind of footwear for himself.
“Just over here,” the young woman pointed to a door near the front entrance of the store.
I looked up and saw a washroom sign so I walked in that direction with some bags of clothes from previous stores under my arm. Robin had the rest but I had to make a run for it right now. There could be no waiting around or making plans to get the rest of the clothes and then run off. The time is now. So I slipped out of the front doors and made a run for it down the street, just hoping and praying that Robin hadn’t seen me. I knew that it would take some nine and a half hours to get from Croton to where I needed to go but in spite of time, the weather and my own body not being on my side, I started walking anyway. I did my best to stay out of the downtown areas of places I passed through just in case Robin was somewhere behind me wanting to pick me up off the streets again. The only thing I regretted when I ran for it was not having been able to properly thank him for everything he had done for me.
Keep it together Ana. Dammit keep it together!
After some three hours of walking I made it to Millwood and took a bus to Hawthorne. I hopped on without paying and jump off paying even less. I grinned at what I had done in delight. I then walked the remaining three hours to Lennie’s loft in Cobalt. Robin hadn’t come after me. Nobody had. But Lennie was quite surprised and alarmed to see me on his doorstep after having been gone for nearly two weeks.
“What are you doing here?!” the old man asked when he saw me on the other side of the door.
“Can I crash for the night?” I asked in shame and embarrassment, “I need to get to Washington Heights in the morning.”
“Where the hell have you been? Eddie said you just bolted one day and nobody ever saw you again!”
“Yeah, that’s kind of what happened. I got angry and I went on a really long walk.”
“Well thank goodness you’re alright! Come on in!”
So I walked into his loft and nothing had changed except that there was more dust than there had been two weeks ago. The boys were not in the house. It was just me and Cap’n Crunch.
“We were staring to think you were dead out there, kid.” Lennie’s throat appeared to be clogged up as usual.
“It’ll take a lot more than that to kill me!” I snapped back, “Will the boys be back tonight?”
“Nope, I’m not expecting to see them tonight but I can take you to them down in Bronx though.”
“Nah, I don’t want to see them. I need to get to Washington Heights.”
“Can you wait until the morning? Take the train! At least sleep in a real bed tonight!”
Cap’n Crunch twisted my arm and I eventually agreed to stay for the night. As I laid in bed that night it came to me that I hadn’t gotten any farther in the day than I would have if I had just stayed with Robin Crowley. I could have easily gotten on some form of public transportation instead of stopping by the loft but I was hungry and tired and at the end of the day sleeping in the cheap bed I usually got at the loft was probably the best thing I could have landed in. I slept about five hours, a quiet and dreamless sleep, before I grabbed a few snack bars and shoved them in my pockets before I barged out the door. I had on some of the new clothes Robin had gotten for me with the rest plus my old clothes in a blue backpack. Despite Robin’s words echoing in the back of my mind, I still wore my old Pennington’s hoodie. After all, it was the hoodie that carried my murder weapon, I kind of needed it. I tried to be as quiet as possible when walking out the door so I wouldn’t wake up Lennie but he heard me anyway.
“Take the money under the sink for the bus!” Lennie had heard me anyway.
“Thanks man!” I shouted as the door slammed behind me.
That was the last time I heard the old man’s voice.