If, p.2

If, page 2



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  He started to laugh. “Oh shit, Scarface is in the house!”

  I clenched my teeth. This strung out cocksucker’s words don’t hurt me.

  “Damn ma, it looks like you run your mouth too much and someone got to you before me,” he said, mockingly.

  “Fuck you,” I said. I know, stupid, but it just felt right. God, did it feel right.

  “And you still don’t learn! Now I’m gonna take yo’ shit, and your friend’s shit too,” he pointed back where his junkie friend and the mystery guy stood.

  “No,” I said, stepping again to the right, hoping my defiance would protect me. I would not give him my fear. But he grabbed me by the arm. His touch drew out an anger in me I didn’t know was there. I ripped my arm from his grip so hard, I hit him right in the face. Then I felt the shock of the hit. It didn’t hurt so much as it rung throughout my head like an air horn. Then I was being dragged between two buildings, my mouth covered as I tried to scream. Cars whizzed by, and there were people under those tarps and newspaper-made blankets, but I felt completely alone. I prayed someone would step up, but the quiet of the surrounding area didn’t inspire hope. No one was coming to help us. I was being pulled into an abyss. I did everything I could, bucking against this disgusting tweaker’s grip and flailing my long legs. But he must have been high, as his strength was far greater than his slight build suggested.

  “Leave her alone,” my fellow mugging victim shouted, still pinned against the wall. “Let her go, and I’ll give you all of my stuff.” It was the first time I had heard his voice. He was like a sad painting from afar all this time. Speaking suddenly brought him to life.

  The tweaker snickered. “We’re taking both yo’ shit, motherfucker.”

  Once Tweaker had me pinned up against the brick wall, he rifled through my purse, opening my wallet and upending it.

  “Where’s the fuckin’ cash?”

  “I don’t know . . . that’s all I have,” I lied. I was screwed no matter what, and I wouldn’t give them my money so easily. He was unsatisfied and patted my waist, like I was the criminal. Fear rose from my gut, to my chest, and filled my head, causing a pressure so strong it was hard to think or breathe.

  “Damn Scarface, you got a nice fucking body,” he said, his putrid breath rolling along my cheek like a poisonous fog. His hands on my torso shifted from impersonal and hasty to slow and invasive, surveying my waistline and moving up over the small mounds of my breasts, clenching one in his filthy hand.

  “No!” I said, swatting his hand away. He caught my arm by the wrist and pinned it to my side.

  “Say hello to my leeetle frien.” He whispered against my ear as he rubbed himself against me, causing my stomach to revolt. “I’m gonna make your friend over there watch.”

  An eruption of movement exploded on the wall opposite where I was pinned. Junkie-friend hit the floor hard, landing on his ass, and my new homeless ally sent a sweeping kick to his jaw. The junkie fell over with a sickening thud.

  “Run!” he shouted, but I stood there frozen, my legs nearly paralyzed with a cocktail of fear and adrenaline. The junkie lay on the floor moaning.

  “Watch out!” I screamed as Tweaker released me and tackled my new friend to the floor.

  I screamed for help as they wrestled. They rolled around on the ground as I shouted and felt the filthy cement for my cell phone to call for help. But, the scuffle stopped abruptly. Tweaker stood up, something glinting in his hand as he let it fall to the ground. The clinking of metal echoed between the buildings.

  Tweaker ran up to Junkie, who had come to and was trying to regain his bearings. “Come on, we gotta get the fuck outta here!” He pulled on his friend’s T-shirt, but the disoriented mugger could barely make it to his feet. “Fuck this,” Tweaker said, taking off and leaving his “friend” behind.

  My attention went back to the guy who saved me, as he stumbled to his feet, clenching at his side. Dark liquid oozed through the seams of his fingers.

  “Oh my god,” I said under my breath, realizing he had been stabbed. I ran over him, my shaking hands hovering over his body, unsure of how to help. A sliver of amber light illuminated his face. He looked up and our eyes met. I almost gasped when I saw them: a shockingly perfect sage surrounding black pupils. I know it was shallow, but the thought occurred to me that no one with eyes that piercing should be on the street. I mean, no one should be homeless, of course, but he just looked so young, and so . . . vibrant, even underneath the unkempt beard.

  “I told you to run,” he gasped, as he collapsed onto one knee. “What you did was stupid.” I was both impressed and insulted by his ability to scold me after being stabbed. I’d at least expected a thank you for my valiant impulse.

  Sirens filled the air as red, white and blue strobed throughout the dark alley. Someone did see Tweaker drag me in, but it would have already been too late if it wasn’t for the stranger who fought to protect me from the unimaginable.


  I had never been sentimental. It’s not that emotions don’t matter to me, quite the opposite actually. I am affected deeply by the things I feel, almost to a fault. But I tried to live through my daily actions. To do, create, and be inspired by the present, not wax nostalgic. Objects, holidays, dates on a calendar, those were meaningless to me.

  Except Sarah was dead, and I had no choice with her. I couldn’t see her, laugh with her, fight with her. I had become a lot more sentimental since she had died. So as the holidays approached, I found myself in a hole—spinning, falling, unable to grip onto something and crawl out of the despair.

  I wondered how things would be if it had been me who had died instead of her. Or how things would have been if she had never died. I’d probably be a successful artist by now, but I let those dreams die with her.

  I wondered if my mother still went to her bedroom and cried into Sarah’s pillow. I wondered if my dad still drank in the shed. It had been about two years now, and I hoped that things had gotten better for them. I wouldn’t know. I hadn’t seen them in as much time.

  I exiled myself, but it didn’t mean life was in anyway more enjoyable. Like a leper, I isolated myself to stop damage to others, but sometimes the boredom was so intense that I wanted to claw at my own skin to feel something else. And while guilt made me leave, I couldn’t leave guilt. It latched onto me like a leech, sucking away every day, making me a little weaker, draining my will to survive.

  So on this day, I took a bus all the way to the last stop, as far away from 5th as I could. Like a sentimental fool, I toyed with the one thing I had left of Sarah: a small brass pin in the shape of a paintbrush. I remember when she gave it to me. I think she was about fourteen. She found it at some flea market and she said it reminded her of me. I never wore it. What seventeen-year-old boy wears jewelry, even a simple little pin? But I remember thinking that it was nice to have a sister, because brothers didn’t do things like that. So I kept it in my pocket and it kind of always stayed with me.

  I considered staying on the bus to go in the other direction and complete the loop, but its narrow confines began to make me anxious, so I stepped out and wandered.

  I walked with no purpose, and I didn’t pay attention to where I would end up. Like a mindless drone following a homing signal, I ended up back on 5th after a few hours.

  That’s when the exhaustion hit. No, I wasn’t tired. This was an exhaustion that went down to the marrow. Every cell was drained. The exhaustion didn’t stop at the physical though. If you found someone in a desert on their last breath, every last bit of moisture evaporated from their bodies, and you asked them if they wanted a glass of water to survive, they would find a way to whimper “yes.” As desolate as I was, I would have just closed my eyes and died.

  So when I collapsed to the ground and hung my head and those fucking drug addicts started hassling me, I didn’t care to fight. In fact, I was hoping they would end me. I didn’t even have the energy to antagonize them. But I hoped they would look into my eyes and see t
hat there was nothing there and take me out of my misery.

  Perhaps a slice to the throat? A bullet to the head?

  And that brings me to that girl.

  That girl.

  I was so close to a solution. My family wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore and I wouldn’t have to suffer through the burden of living each day. If these tweakers didn’t kill me, at the very least they would kick my ass and make the intangible pain I stewed in daily into something tangible. At least that pain would distract me from the gnawing emptiness that filled every cell of my body.

  It was some sick twist of fate, like some divine being was trying to toy with me: the one person who reminded me that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t lose myself completely, was the one to step in.

  I hoped I could give the losers what they wanted, what I wanted, and they would let her go. But once she broke the invisible wall that separates the functioning members of society from those who made this street their home, she was in it, and she wasn’t going to get out without being scarred.

  When that piece of shit thieving drug addict put his hands on her, the rage snapped me out of my self-loathing fog.

  Her cries looked like shards of glass, a sour flavor assaulted my taste buds, my fingertips felt like they were being pricked with needles. They would not snuff her light, they would not dull her laughter. She was the only thing in this world that connected me to my old self. Suddenly I cared again, if only for that moment. Those sick fucks would not hurt her.

  My numbness was mangled from the inside with a fury that detonated like a bomb. I didn’t even feel the knife as it dug into my flesh.

  That girl, for some reason, I couldn’t shut it off with her. I saw her just as vividly as I used to see everything.

  She made me want to create again. That was dangerous. Far more dangerous than anything these stupid muggers could have done. I had to keep the desire at bay or else I would lose control. Because my art destroys the people I care about. It turns me into a monster.

  Up until that point, the redheaded girl who shined like a beacon in the mist was an empty threat. There was an invisible barrier, where girls like her didn’t see guys who lurked in alleyways. I was safe from her ability to break through to the parts of my brain that had been made dormant through copious amounts of medication.

  Yet, somehow, there she was, seeing me. Glimmering in the dark alleyway like some sort of guardian angel that I didn’t want.

  I tried so hard not to exist, but she was forcing me to. She was forcing me to partake in life.

  I wanted to die, but she forced me to live.

  And I wasn’t happy about it.


  I FOUND MY phone and called Jordan in a panic. The ambulance took the guy who saved me. I didn’t even get his name. The paramedics wouldn’t let me come along, despite my insistence that he saved my life and I needed to be there for him.

  Junkie was so disoriented from the kick to the face that he couldn’t get to his feet, and the police arrested him immediately. They took my statement, and I refused to go to the hospital. I knew I was fine and I didn’t want to incur any medical bills.

  As expected, Jordan didn’t pick up since he was working, so I left him a jumbled voicemail. Once I was back in the quiet safety of my apartment, I thought about calling my sister, but I knew she would freak. I needed to have some separation from the incident before I could tell her. If I did it now, I would burst into tears.

  It was so close to happening. So close to my life being forever irreparably changed. My stomach twisted in knots with sickness. Sometimes things that almost happened can torture us, too.

  I turned on some music and tried to dance, but the nervous energy wasn’t productive. I just wanted to know he had survived. That I hadn’t sparked a series of events that led to his death. And one thought kept churning: how could the guy who stood there in acceptance of his own attack, suddenly step up like a fearless hero for me? The contradiction was baffling. He fought two men for me, but when he was alone being prodded and shoved, he just stood there.

  In the midst of this thought passing through my mind for the hundredth time, my phone rang.

  “Hey,” I said wearily. It was already one in the morning, and I knew I would have some explaining to do.

  “What the hell happened? Your voicemail scared the shit out of me.”

  “I don’t want you to worry. But I saw someone being mugged and I tried to step in and . . . I was attacked, too.”

  “What? Attacked? Where?”

  “On the way home.”

  “In the cab?”

  “No. On fifth.”

  “You were supposed to take a cab . . .”

  “I know.”

  “Dammit Bird! Why didn’t you just tell me?”

  “It wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t want you spending money on me.”

  “Well, apparently it was! What were you thinking?”

  I remained silent. I didn’t know what I was thinking. I just didn’t think that would happen to me. Jordan sighed. “You said you were okay in the voicemail. Are you really?”

  “Yes, just a bruise.”

  “So what happened?”

  The fear refreshed as if it was happening all over again, and my eyes glossed with tears. I cleared my throat. “Like I said, I was walking home on 5th, and I noticed something suspicious, like someone was being hassled. I didn’t think and I butted in.”

  “God sometimes your heart is bigger than your brain,” he said. “And you’re smart, so that says a lot.”

  “I’m not sure if I should be saying thanks to that or not.”

  “Well, what happened next?”

  “One of the guys came up to me, pulled me off the street into the alley.”

  “Oh god,” Jordan murmured.

  “But the guy, the one I helped, he went all ninja-mode. He punched the one who was holding him and then kicked him in the head.”

  “Ho-ly shit.”

  “And he wrestled the other one, who then stabbed him. The cops found them both.”

  “Whoa. Is he okay?”

  “I don’t know. I have to find a way to get to the hospital. I can’t just let him be there alone. Not after what he did for me. I was hoping you could come with me.”

  “Of course. Trevor is picking me up. I’ll get him to take us.”

  “It’s late. I feel awful making him our chauffeur.”

  “Let me take care of Trevor. Don’t worry about anything. I am still pissed at you for lying by the way, but I am so glad you’re okay.”

  “I know. I’m sure I’ll be hearing about it forever.”

  “You will. In fact, I am going to randomly barge in while you’re in the shower to remind you daily,” he said.

  “As if you needed any more reasons to barge into my place. Sometimes I wonder if this gay thing is all an act so you can see me naked all the time.”

  “You wish, princess.”


  By the time we arrived at the hospital, my mystery guy was gone. The nurses wouldn’t give me any information. They only said that he was not obligated to stay and that he was not dead. I was relieved but also upset. Had he thought I just accepted his help and then forgot all about him as soon as he had been wheeled into the ambulance? I felt deeply indebted to him. He saved my life. It made me physically sick to think about what could have happened had he not stepped up. He shouldn’t just be in the streets, forgotten. I wanted to help him, befriend him, maybe find him a job. I wanted to do something to pay him back, but he had vanished so quickly.

  Trevor insisted on treating us to a late-night meal at a diner. Trevor, unlike Jordan and I, was not a dancer. He had a steady job as a local assistant news producer. Jordan also wasn’t as poor as me, not even close. That’s why he could be so generous, but it made me feel like a charity case. Jordan worked at the club to supplement the income he got from teaching and choreography. His club gig paid better and he actually got dance work. The downtime from
dance gigs was becoming shorter, but his faith in the entertainment industry was slim and until he had zero downtime, he refused to quit.

  They were a beautiful couple. Trevor, blonde with deep blue eyes and a smile the stuff of teeth-whiting commercials. Jordan had smooth skin the color of a cocoa bean, and he had a beautiful strong body, sculpted from dancing since early childhood. His teeth were perfect too.

  And there I was, sitting across from these beautiful men. Maybe from a distance someone might think I was beautiful, but up close, the reality became clear: I was deformed.

  “Okay, Bird. That’s it, you’re not ever walking home alone at night. Between Jordan and I, you will have a male escort with you at all times when coming home from work,” Trevor proclaimed.

  “Male escort?” I flirtatiously asked, raising an eyebrow.

  “Back off bitch,” Jordan said, and we all laughed.

  “Guys, that’s just not possible. I’ve lived here for over a year and a half, this was just a freak thing that happened. The attack was personal, and I’m sure those guys will be in jail for a while.”

  “She’s so fucking stubborn,” Jordan rolled his eyes as he addressed Trevor.

  “She’s right here,” I called out, pointing to the top of my head.

  “You kind of are,” Trevor chimed in. I yanked a French fry from his plate and threw it at him. It bounced off his chest onto his plate, and he fed it to Jordan. Sometimes they could be so cute, it triggered my gag reflex.

  “Trevor understands you’re my non-sex wife. My mental stability relies on your existence. So he’s in this with me. And we can be just as stubborn. No late night walks home. End of discussion.”

  “Yes, Dad,” I said. Jordan was one of the first people I met when I moved out to LA. On my first day of work at our dance school, he came right up to me and introduced himself. You ever meet someone and instantly feel that click? That’s how it was. Five minutes into our conversation and I knew we would be real friends. At the time, I was living in a spare room in a three bedroom apartment otherwise inhabited by a single mother and her two kids, and Jordan was the one who helped me get my current apartment, across the hall from him.

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