Chapter 3: Alice

Alice, hon, you still with me?”

The words try to reach me but I’m falling.

“I’m so sorry, dear. I know…”

Her voice is lost in echo as I slip further away. My fingers grow thick and numb around the phone’s receiver and part of me recognizes this as my senses giving in and shutting down. I’m finally starting to understand the pervasive numbness of grief, how it surrounds and smothers you, how people can drown in it and lose the way back out. My tongue has gone dry and I try to swallow, but then I see a bright yellow balloon. That’s when I know I’ve lost it.

The street I’m on is an old alley time forgot. Nothing much has happened here in twenty years, I’m sure. Nothing good at least. It even has a phone booth. In modern day times I’m fairly certain they’re extinct.

A flinty chirping comes from the distance; I can only guess she’s still talking.

“Alice? Say something, dear.”

I want to, but I can’t. Or maybe I don’t want to. All I can do is focus on that yellow balloon scuttling down this frozen stretch of city, floating four or five feet above the ground. Winter, poverty and neglect have blanched all color save the most stubborn grays from the street and buildings. The snow here even looks like old mud. So what’s with this lemony balloon?

“Ms. Lorca.”

Something stern and commanding, something formal in that voice pulls me back to the receiver dangling from its metal cord, twisting above my head. Above my…? When did I sit down? I reach up for the phone and press cold plastic to my ear. “I’m here. Sorry, I…”

“It’s okay, dear. But you gotta know something else before you go.”

“Okay.”

“Alice, you gotta know I’m not alone here. You catch that?”

“Sure,” I say, not really listening or thinking. “Thanks for all your help, Bernice.”

And then I hang the phone up and look back out to the street. Of course, there’s no balloon out there. There’s nothing yellow at all. No, out here everything’s cold, and grey, and dead.

***

I don’t know how long I’ve spent sitting on the grimy metal floor of that booth, only that my fingers and toes are numb, and the winter chill is starting to poke needles in my cheeks. The muscles in my legs are tight when I stand. I step out and lean back against the brick wall, bend my knees a few times. A gust comes up, cold, slicing through me again. I need to move, get somewhere warm.

The wind comes from my right so I turn left and begin walking. The whole city has emptied, now filled only by shadows born of streetlights. Up ahead there’s a small but gaudy splash of neon hung from a window. I head toward it, figuring a drink would be good, although I really do not want to have to deal with people right now.

It’s not a place I know, but it might be okay. The location gives me hope. Any closer to downtown and it’d reek of Axe Body Spray and hormones. If it were further off in the other direction, nearer the old train yards, I’d likely be surrounded by men with neck tattoos living lives of loud, angry desperation.

Below the neon window sign there’s a handwritten notice. It warns:

Surly Staff / Poor Selection / High Prices / Terrible Quality

Sounds kinda nice.

Inside is pretty much what I hoped for. No throbbing music goading on sorority girls; nothing along the far wall looking like it might blossom into a knife fight over a meth deal gone bad. Not too peppy, not too scary: it’s the bar Goldilocks would’ve chosen.

Along the side wall booths house clusters of hard-lived lives. Beaten down souls with faces the color of coffee stains, faces etched by booze, cigarettes, and knuckle-busting jobs of hard labor. The sort of people that live their lives in a Springsteen song. Those seats are all taken, and I hadn’t paid all my dues to sit there yet anyway, so I slide onto a stool at the bar.

The guy that serves me my drink looks like Elvis Presley might’ve looked had he been a real person rather than a legend. The name stitched on the patch of his old fashioned service station shirt states Elton, so I suppose it’s close. Plus he calls me “ma’am” and I kinda dig that. What I like best though is how after he serves me he walks back to the other end of the counter. I hate people in bars that assume you’re there for conversation.

Silence is gold now because there’s a question I need to unravel. For the past five years my life has been a dead end. Scenic at times, sure, but designed to go nowhere. So what do you do when your reason for not being is snatched away? I’m going to need some time to unravel that. Time, and some whiskey. The time, I don’t know how much of that I have left. I suppose nobody does. The whiskey, though…

I finish another glass and ponder how long I’ve stared at the bottle of Maker’s Mark against the mirror in front of me. I don’t know. I can’t keep track. It’s just that relaxing in here. The music’s not too loud, the customers are low-key, and the guy nearest me’s working on a crossword puzzle. So no, I don’t know how long it’s been since I hung up that phone, but I do know that the kids stumbling in the door just now are begging to be hated.

Three guys, loud laughing hyenas, circle a couple curvy and bronzed blondes in the middle. They’re all exotic creatures in here. A peek tells me that ol’ sideburns behind the bar isn’t too happy to have them, either. They head to a table in the back corner but it’s not nearly far enough away. Everyone’s uncomfortable now, sneaking glances and throwing glares. The newcomers are young and bold, with energy and optimism and no shame. Youth like that is easy to resent, easy to hate when it’s flaunted so effortlessly, when it reflects back what you no longer have, what time has taken away.

One of the young turks backs his way to the bar, continuing a conversation filled with single-entendres and braggadocio as he gets further away. Volume on high, living life out loud, he finally stops beside me and motions for the bartender.

I hang my head and hope my lanky hair will form an impenetrable sheath across the side of my face, Veronica Lake-style, blocking me from his view. It’s my feeble version of the old child’s game: if I can’t see you, you can’t see me. But tonight I pay the price for the poor grooming habits of the past few weeks because my stringy strands don’t do enough and he dips down and catches my eye. He sharks a grin at me and his teeth really could not be whiter.

“And how is your night going?”

I do hate this. There is literally no answer I can give that won’t pull him closer. If I’m rude and demeaning he’ll see it as playful, think of me as a challenge.

The bartender starts stacking drinks on the counter in front of him, quotes him a surprisingly high price. The kid flashes some plastic to pay for the round.

“What are you looking for tonight?” he asks.

“To be left alone.”

One of the waitresses circles by and he sticks out an arm to stop her. A grin or two and he’s got her carrying his order back to his friends.

“Are you by yourself?”

“Yep. It’s what I do when I want to be left alone.”

“Hey, you know what? I bet you’ve got a great smile. You do, don’t you? How ‘bout it? Smile for me? C’mon, a real quick one?”

Guys like this, you meet them often if you don’t know how to avoid them. A little less often if you do. He’s the sort of hunter that throws out bait everywhere, more concerned with quantity than quality, only interested in finding something to mount.

“Not tonight,” I say.

“Not yet you mean. How about joining us? It’ll be fun.”

“Fun’s not what I’m looking for.”
Luckily for me his phone starts singing, lucky because that’s something no one his age can ignore. He checks it out, smiles and flips it open.

“Bro-monster! What up, yo?”

As he struts off I see the bartender standing near the guy with the crossword. He’s staring holes into the kid’s back.

“Is he bothering you, ma’am?”

“I’m fine.”

“That’s not what I asked, but okay.” He points at my empty glass. “Again?”

“Please.”

“My name’s Elton,” he says tapping the patch on his chest and placing a newer, fuller drink in front of me. “And if he bugs you, you say so, and me and Wex here’ll show him the door. Until then I’ll be over here, charging them double.”

I check out Wex the crossword enthusiast. “I don’t know. Wex there looks pretty busy trying to remember words.”

“Hey now, ease up,” he says. “It’s a Sunday.”

“Ooh.”

“Some of these are in Latin.” He tells it to the paper as he scratches another word into the page with a Bic.

“You’re the bouncer? Real tough guy.”

“Who said I was a bouncer?”

I look up at Elton.

“Whoa.” He puts his hands in front of himself, begging off. “That’s not what I said.”

“Insinuated, at the very least,” I say.

“Really?” says the guy with the crossword, setting down his pen.

“Misunderstanding,” Elton says. “I just meant you’re a good man for a tight spot.”

This causes me to giggle a little because after a couple drinks something inside of me becomes fourteen years old again.

“Is there something funny?” Elton says.

It must be the buzz, but I shake my head and tell them. “‘Good man for a tight spot’? I was thinking you’ve got your slogan if you ever decide to whore yourself out.”

Elton busts a gut behind the bar.

“Thanks, Elton,” Wex says.

Drinks are drunk, pool balls are racked and cracked apart, and time passes. Small pieces of music fall from speakers above, mingle with the clinks of the bottles and highball glasses. An occasional “Dude!” burst from the table in the back, but it’s only thunder on a distant prairie now. Otherwise, peaceful.

I get like this when I drink. It’s okay. It let’s me know I’ve had enough.

“Another?” Elton says, reaching for my empty.

“Yes, please.”

I try not to think about my brother. I really don’t want to think about Ben, but I don’t know how not to. I do know how to keep from crying, though, so that’s what I concentrate on instead. I give up, give in and let my thoughts go where they will and spend my energy on keeping my eyes dry.

To my right a throat clears. “A little help?”

It’s Wex with the crossword.

“Stuck?”

“I suppose some would say I’m in a tight spot. I’m looking for a ten letter word for torture. Any thoughts?”

I take another sip. “Hospital.”

Ice cubes clatter as I set the glass back on the counter. He tries to fit my answer in the spaces, but it won’t reach.

“Not enough letters.”

I shrug. “Add an ‘s’ or two.”

***

Nothing about it was right.

Nothing was ever right. Two weeks ago I found a way into the hospital through a cafeteria entrance in the back. Beside a dumpster filled with plastic bags and rotting food was a door with a broken lock. The lock was broken because one night a young Mexican boy carried a load of garbage to the dumpster while I waited in the bushes, waited and watched, then caught the door before it latched on his way back in. I used a screwdriver like an ice pick and made sure that entrance stayed open to me every night.

In his room, long, curved and ribbed plastic tubes ran in and out of Ben. Machines wheezed for him, breathed for him, and I sat quiet in the dark. A sliver of light snaked in from under the door and the glow of the monitors cast an eerie shade of led green across the room.

The glow made him look sick. But he wasn’t. He was broken. And dying.

The chair in his room was far from comfortable, but the third time I snuck in I fell asleep in it anyway. When I woke there was a shadow in front of the window blocking the faint light from the parking lot outside.

“Mornin’.”

The first thing I did was grab for my bag. If it was gone I was fucked, but it was right there next to my feet, right where I left it. Deep in my chest something told me to grab it and run, go right now. I think I would’ve, too, if I hadn’t seen the little red dot in the shadow’s hand.

“Oh, please tell me you’re not smoking in here,” I said.

The shadow shifted closer to the window and I saw that it was opened slightly. A trickle of smoke spiraled out.

“Ah, he don’t seem to mind none.”

“Maybe I mind enough for the both of us.”

A soft chuckle, it was a woman, and I thought I saw her shake her head at me.

“Girl, you know you ain’t supposed to be here. Who you gonna tell?”

Nothing about it was right.

***

How much bourbon do you have to pour on a memory to keep it down?

“You smoke?”

It’s Tina the cocktail waitress holding up a cigarette to me, offering. She rests on the stool between me and Wex the crossword puzzle guy when she’s not busy shuttling drinks out to tables.

“No,” I shake my head. “Thanks.”

The reflections in the bottles, they’re bright pinpoint images of the lights above. When I take another sip they start to shimmer and move like the dots that bounced around on the monitors in my brother’s hospital room.

Maybe the drinking won’t help me with the forgetting.

A cloud of smoke appears to my side and I look over at the waitress.

“Shit. Sorry. Is this bothering you?”

“No, you’re fine.”

“I’ll move if—”

“Stay.”

“K. Cool. Thanks.” She takes a long pull then lets it out, turning her head away from me first. “Is it two yet?”

“I don’t know. Long night?”

“Yeah. Supposed to be another girl here tonight but she no-showed. It makes for good money and all, but my feet are killing me.”

Noises come from the back corner again. Laughter, mostly, but still not exactly welcome.

“Hey, you ever wonder what yuppies look like when they’re young?” Tina says, pointing with her cigarette. “That’s them in their infantile stage.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that? This doesn’t seem like their sort of place.”

“Tourists.” She takes another drag and blows smoke to the side. “We get ‘em every now and again. Kids stroll down this way, slumming it, buy some cans of PBR and feel gritty and real. They don’t last.”

Twisting her hips, Tina swivels a slow circle on her stool, eyes tracking across her customers. A smattering of tired hands rise up, getting her attention, wanting more drinks. Tina nods and the hands fall back as she finishes her circle to face the bar again. Resting her cigarette on the edge of an ashtray she says, “If this gets to bothering you, feel free to put it out.”

“It’s fine.”

As she climbs off the stool the kids in the corner start shouting her name.

“Tina! Yo! Tina!”

“Hold on!” She calls back. Then to me, “You ever feel like everyone wants a piece of you?” She smiles a rueful little grin, pats me on the shoulder and heads back to work.

She doesn’t see me nodding my answer.

***

“Some men were here asking ‘bout a Ms. Alice Lorca today.”

“Yeah?”

It’s been about a week since I started coming. Two since Ben arrived. And this was the third night I had to share some of our quiet time with Bernice.

“Fancy men in fancy suits. Lookin’ all official.”

Expected though it was, my stomach still couldn’t help but tighten. “What’d they say?”

“Oh, you know, has anyone seen you, if you’ve been in. That sorta thing.”

“I see.”

There was a soft click and a small flame pierced the darkness. As she held it to the cigarette in her mouth I got another glimpse of her round face, her wide nose and big eyes. In that instant I could see her as a young girl with beautiful, shiny cheeks, hair up in pigtails, sucking on a lollipop. The image aged as her heavy cheeks hollowed, the flame caught, and the cherry grew bright and angry.

“Are you interested in what I told ‘em?”

My shrug didn’t work super well in the dark. She answered anyway.

“Told ‘em nothin’. Figured you had enough to worry ‘bout already.”

“Don’t suppose they left a card?”

The shadow that was Bernice leaned toward the opened window and exhaled smoky exhaustion. “Girl, they didn’t seem the type that left markers as to who they were or where they been.” She said it to the cars and stars outside, then turned back to me. “I figured you’d be able to find them if you wanted.”

“Thanks for that.”

“I also figured that if they get to wantin’ bad enough they might make it worth my while to tell ‘em, you know? So don’t be all into thankin’ me yet.”

***

I must be drunk because for a second I think I hear the voice of God echoing down from above. It’s only when He starts name dropping Kate Bush, Tom Waits, and My Bloody Valentine that I realize it’s only a dj rattling off the night’s playlist.

My blurred vision settles and I glimpse Tina over by the door slapping crossword puzzle guy across the shoulder before he leaves. In front of me Elton sets a tall glass of water.

“Scuse me,” I slur slightly, “is that the radio playing now?”

“It’s been playing all night, ma’am.”

“You always play the radio?”

“Yep.”

“Isn’t that a little unusual for a bar?”

“Not for my bar it ain’t.”

The water is icy and cold and feels welcome in my mouth but foreign in my stomach. I feel it swirling around the bourbon, brownest of the brown liquors, and I wonder how well they’ll get along.

“Too cheap to pay for your own music?”

I take another sip and hope I don’t get sick.

“Nah, it’s not the money, it’s worse that that.” He swipes at the counter with his rag.

“Worse than that,” I repeat, remembering.

“Yeah. I actually prefer it.”

***

The machine moved like a demented accordion. It invaded my brother with its hard plastic tubes and played him like some cheap marionette. It pushed and pulled but in the end it didn’t breathe for him so much as wheeze for him.

The strap from my bag hung loosely around my leg as I sat in the chair and watched him sleep. I really didn’t know what else to do. There’s all that talk about how you should speak to your comatose loved ones, about how they can hear you or how it’s good for their brain function or something like that, but I can’t exactly be chatting away in this darkened room at three in the morning, telling him all about where I’ve been the past three years, what I’ve done and who I’ve met and why I left, and all the time hoping that nobody hears me, catches me in here and reports me, has me arrested for trespassing or even simply removed from the premises.

So I sat quietly, quieter than the wheezing machines by his bed, and I watched him. Occasionally I nodded off, and more than once I cried. But quietly.

The last night I saw my brother I had a hard time looking at him. His arms and legs had started to curl up. I asked Bernice about it when she came in and even in the darkness I could sense it on her face.

“It’s gonna be soon now.”

I kinda respect her for not bullshitting me.

She cracked the window and lit her cigarette. A trickle of cold snuck into the room.

“Really, isn’t there anywhere else you can do that?”

“Not on hospital grounds there ain’t.” She exhaled long and slow. “They don’t even let us smoke in the break rooms anymore.”

“That must be very tough for you.”

She looked at me a long time and sighed. “You and him, you two close?”

“Not for a long time now. No.”

“So that’s why you sneak in, right? Guilt? You thinkin’ this sort of vigil can make up for lost time?”

“That cigarette’s not going to smoke itself,” I told her.

“You want me to shut up?”

“I don’t come here for the conversation.”

“You ever think you shouldn’t be coming at all?” She dangled her cigarette outside the window. “One of them fancy fellas was lookin’ for you again tonight. Hung around ‘til almost midnight this time. Really hoping to see you, I s’pose.”

“So?”

“So if you’d of come in a little sooner, or he’d of stayed a little later . . .”

“So?” I was at my most petulant.

“So your brother may still be in a bed, but hon, it may as well be a coffin ‘cuz he’s gone. His heart beats but there ain’t nothing left upstairs. And I think you know that yet you keep on coming, sneaking in, hoping those men that have such a particular interest in your scrawny ass ain’t gonna be here, all so you can sit in the dark and do nothing for a couple hours.”

She pulled her arm back and took a drag.

“Honey, you’ve seen all there is to see. This is it. A few more days, maybe a week or two, and what’s left of your little brother is gonna give in.”

She took another drag while the machines pumped more air into Ben.

“You ever considered motivational speaking?” I said. “You’ve a knack.”

“Huh. Anything I said there strike you as wrong, hon?”

“Yeah,” I stood to leave. “My ass is not scrawny.”

She let out a disapproving snort. It smelled like menthol.

The first step I took away from the chair I forgot my bag was tied around my leg. It wasn’t enough to trip me but it was enough to knock it over and let some of the contents spill out.

“Oh my,” was the sound Bernice’s gasp made when she saw all the grey-green bundles of cash.

I bent down and stuffed them back in as quickly as I could.

“I wonder…”

“Bet you do,” I said.

“… if all that money might have something to do with why those fellas are so very interested in you.”

Clipped shut I slung the bag over my shoulder and made for the door.

“Maybe you should give it back, hon.”

I stopped and turned to look at Ben one last time. Even then I knew there was no good way to say goodbye, no one word or phrase I could say that would sum it all up, make it hurt any less.

“Hon?” Bernice said. “Maybe if you gave it back?”

“They don’t want…”

I turned to the shadow of the nurse in the window. The tears in my eyes doubled and then trebled her form.

“It’s not the money they want,” I said. “It’s worse than that.”

And then I left.

***

It’s not like Ben was completely alone. He had friends, there were others that loved him. Sneaking up there like that I told myself it was because I didn’t want him to be alone. Tried to make it seem all noble to myself.

Truth is my motives were probably closer to selfish than selfless. They usually are. Like when Ben started to get older, started to look more like his father, I probably should’ve stayed. But someone once told me there was no such thing as a problem so big you can’t run away from it. So I picked a reason that sounded selfless, and I ran.

After that last night with Bernice I kept away from the hospital to be safe. Staying away like that made all of the things I couldn’t think of saying before finally come to mind. There were so many things I wanted to tell him, even if I couldn’t be sure that he’d really hear them.

On the fourth night I called the hospital, asked around and was eventually connected to who I was looking for.

“You still stinking up my brother’s room?”

“He still don’t mind.”

I stood in the cold at a payphone beside a gas station on the corner. Cars crawled by, taking the icy turn slowly.

“How’s he doing? Is he…”

“He’s the same,” she said.

“Same?”

“Yeah, you know, still getting a little worse each day. Same as before.”

Another car inched by, slower than the others. I could feel the driver’s stare crawl over me. I squeezed my bag a little tighter under my arm and watched until the black sedan disappeared around a corner a few blocks down. But I didn’t feel safe.

“I think I better go,” I said.

“Do you want to call back tomorrow night, hon? I’ll be here.”

“Okay.”

“Let me give you the extension for this desk.”

***

The sort of hotel that will take cash without id, that won’t glance twice at an obviously phony name, they do still exist. Unfortunately they aren’t the sort of place anyone with any better options would choose, but that’s not why they’re out there. I couldn’t complain, though, because I was all out of better options and it was too cold to sleep on the street, so I paid by the hour, did my best to ignore the smell in the rooms and the stains on the sheets, and tried to lay low until the next night when I would call Bernice again.

“Gonna be soon now.”

It was a payphone in the back of an all-night diner. Warmer in there than the night before, but I didn’t like that the customers might hear me. I’ve always preferred privacy.

“Maybe I could come back in, one more time …? See him again before…”

“Alice, hon, you do what you want. But right now there’s a big shouldered fella in a dark suit at the end of the hallway. He’s been up here since before my shift started, and when he leaves it’ll only be because a new guy stopped in to take over for him.”

Chattering voices came toward me and I turned away as they slipped into the bathroom.

“So you come in if you want, but only if you’re ready to have that come to Jesus chat with these men you been avoidin’, ‘cuz they don’t leave no more.”

A recording of an operator interrupted us, giving me my time remaining warning. Pumping another quarter into the payphone’s slot shut it up.

“Did I ever tell you about this one time, when we were kids…” It was this memory that kept cropping up that I couldn’t shake. Don’t know why it was so persistent all of a sudden.

“Go on, hon.”

The wall held me up by my forehead as I leaned against it. I didn’t think anyone here would be any of the one’s looking for me, but for some reason I had a strong desire to not be seen.

“Ben, he was about five or six, so I was about sixteen or seventeen.” Telling her, I had to pause because some of the words kept catching in my throat. “He uh, he went to this local camp during the summer.”

“Hold on a sec,” Bernice said.

A minute or two stretched by. I stood there alone, waiting, with drunken diner chatter in my one ear; Bernice’s muffled conversation with one of her coworkers in my other; and this memory floating around in my head of Ben and his yellow balloon.

“Okay. I’m back. Get on with your story.”

“Well, at this camp they had these activities, and one of the days they had the kids write down their names and addresses on slips of paper. Then they stuck the papers inside balloons and filled them with helium so at the end of the day all the kids would let the balloons go and they were supposed to float off to who-knows-where. The idea was that some random person somewhere would get their balloon, see the note inside, and the kids would get a sort of karmic pen-pal out of the deal.”

Two rather loud, drunken, happy and carefree girls stumbled past me to the bathroom. While I paused to let them by the operator’s recording came on again, an automated gate keeper telling me I had one minute remaining.

“I’m still here, hon.”

“I know, just…” I dug around in my pockets for more quarters but came up empty. The money in my bag was all cash, so no help there. “Shit.”

“What’s a matter?”

“Nothing. I gotta go.”

Fifteen seconds, came the automated voice.

“You working again tomorrow night?” I asked.

“No, I’m off the next two. Won’t be back on until—”

Click.

Dial tone.

***

The next two days were arduous. They were long and slow, boring and painful. All I could think about was Ben alone in that bed, that room. I switched hotels again, trying to be smart and safe, not sure if constantly being on the move was wise and crafty or merely pointless. I couldn’t decide what’d be easier for them to find: a moving target, or a stationary one.

When I checked out of my room it was barely ten and already the traffic in that part of the city had slowed to almost nothing. I made my way down the block to a payphone I had spotted the day before when I found my latest hotel. The phone was housed in an old aluminum phone booth. Its windows were cracked and the door wouldn’t close on it. More than half the pages had been ripped from the phonebook, the other pages illegibly rain-soaked. I couldn’t help but think that it’d be perfect for some sort of ghetto Superman.

And then I remembered watching the Superman movies with Ben when he was younger. When we were just kids.

I dropped my bag from my shoulder and pulled the scrap of paper from my pocket with the hospital’s number and Bernice’s extension. My other pocket was filled with quarters. I wasn’t going to get cut off this time.

The receiver was cold against my ear, and the buttons I pressed were queasingly sticky, but they worked and soon I heard Bernice’s voice answer my call.

“Hon,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

***

“Last call.”

“Huh?”

Looking up I focus my drunken gaze on the bartender before me.

“You want one more before we shut it down?”

“No, I’m good … Wait.” My dry tongue tries sticking to the side of my mouth. “Another water?”

“One water, coming up.”

A minute later Elton places a tall glass in front of me. Beside it is a ticket with my night’s total. I take a sip of water, pick up the slip of paper to see what I owe, and my fragile world finally shatters completely apart.

Oh, no.

Shit.

Jesus fuck.

My bag.

It’s not at my feet, it’s not on the chair next to me. I spin around and my eyes take in the world of my surroundings instantly, and nowhere, nowhere is my bag. And suddenly I know I didn’t bring it in here with me.

I stumble, almost falling off the barstool, and soon I’m outside again, running, not feeling the cold of the night, sprinting back to the phone booth where I know I left my bag lying on the floor.

There’s nobody out here, so maybe. But it’s been hours since I left it and when I get to the phone booth the last few bitter pieces of hope crash through my stomach leaving a wounded mess of my insides, causing me to double over in pain. I sit down on its metal floor for the second time tonight. The only thing still here is the scrap of paper with Bernice’s hospital number scratched on it.

And I can’t help it anymore, and I don’t even want to. I start to cry. Having started, I can’t stop. My shoulders quake as great heaves force themselves up from deep inside. I pull my knees up close, wrapping my arms around them, but I can’t stop shaking.

Crying, I think of how much Ben didn’t like the end of the first Superman movie because Supe is able to fly around the world, spinning it backwards, back in time, reversing all the bad that just happened and bringing Lois back to life. Ben, even though he was only eight and shouldn’t have known better, he thought it wasn’t fair. Brilliant little Ben said that there was no need to ever Save the Day if you were always able to spin time back and try it all again later.

I still can’t stop shaking, can’t stop thinking of that yellow balloon Ben handed me after his summer camp. All the other kids let their balloons go and it almost looked magical, those multicolored dots floating en masse up and out into the azure sky, heading off to meet new friends in distant, far away lands. We tried to explain it to Ben, what he was supposed to do, but he kept smiling and shaking his head and holding his balloon out for me to take.

And now he’s gone. My brother is gone and I’ll never be able to talk to him again, never be able to write to him or sit by his bedside and hope for a happy ending. Ben is dead and there’s no Superman here to Save the Day, nobody that can turn back time and give us a chance to fix all the bad things, to do them better, to get it right.

And now my bag is gone, all the money is gone, and my only real chance of surviving is gone. I have no idea where I can go or what I can do, no clue how I’ll be able to stay hidden or get away. And as the shaking slows and I wipe the tears from my cheeks I realize I’ve got nothing left to live for.

But I don’t want to die yet.


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