I sat on the ground, eyes closed, my back rigid against the alley’s brick wall, feeling the cold cement gradually make my bottom numb. I was nothing more than a black shadow parked next to a green, rust-swathed dumpster; it was the property of a Chinese restaurant that I had used as a source of food back then. Yes, most leftovers were contaminated with ejected surplus and saliva, but when you’re starving, you’ll take what you can get without complaint.The vent that swallowed up steam from the restaurant’s kitchen coughed up thick layers of translucent air scented with saccharine syrups, sizzling meats, and heavenly vegetables. It didn’t quite overpower the distasteful stench wafting from the oversized trash can, but my mouth watered regardless. Inhaling heavily through my nose, I groaned and proceeded to lick pathetically at the vapor, hoping that I could trick my growling stomach into thinking it was stuffed.
I was living a perpetual nightmare of embarrassment and disgrace, and no one would rouse me from it. I knew that, if I wanted freedom, I would have to be the one to initiate the move. Not Mom, who was seven feet under. Not Dad, who shunned my musical endeavors and then threw me out the second he saw me in bed with another guy. Not my supposed friends, who forgot about my existence long ago. Me. The problem was that I lacked the means to leave.
If you feel any pity for me right now, cut it out. Trust me, I am not worthy of your pity. All I want is for you to be cognizant of how desperate I was at that point in my life. Then, maybe, you’ll recognize the shame between these lines as I, Mark Gravis, recite the tale of the bravest woman I have ever rallied.
I remember having let out a loud sigh when a car’s headlights suddenly livened, piercing through the alley’s darkness. I recoiled, lifting my arm to act as a shield against the blindingly white light. A very feminine woman dressed in a usual office uniform approached the vehicle. She wore a slenderizing gray skirt that cut just above her knees and a light blue button-up blouse. She fished through her purse, muttering incoherent words to herself.
Keys. I heard the jingle of keys. I perked up, my heart thudding against my chest madly as if it desired to rip through the flesh and bone, and roll toward the car to get shotgun. My pale cheeks reddened as I thought about the vibrations of the engine: the constant drumming that would travel up the seats and make whatever leg fat I had left rattle. I would roll down the windows and achieve the same graciousness mutts receive as the wind creams their porky faces, their tongues bouncing flabbily. “Oh, yes,” I murmured hungrily.
Sluggishly, I obtained a cool stance, fighting against the fright that subsequently threatened to take me down. I slithered a hand into the pocket inside my jacket, reaching for the gun I managed to snag from Dad’s safe before my departure. My fingers trembled since I was, of course, still human. The hard life hadn’t exactly turned me callous, but it did make me ruthless. I inched toward the woman quietly. Loading a bullet into the chamber, the click ricocheted against the walls of the two adjacent buildings. She paused, and I swore. She turned to me, alarm winning over her delicate features when she spotted me. The gun was positioned at the level of my eyes.
“Give me the keys.”
The lady blinked at me, and I noticed her casually touch the back door handle. When I reflect back on this incident, I wish I had been smart enough to dwell on that small gesture. If I had, perhaps I could’ve stopped the bad from happening.
“You won’t pull that trigger,” she said calmly.
My brows rose. “What?” I hissed.
“Put down the gun, boy,” she insisted like a mother who was scolding her child for coloring on the living room wall. Simply by looking at the lady, one could have easily underestimated her as a fragile woman with frail hands and no guts. Really, she was anything but.
Is this lady actually challenging me? I thought, silently astounded. I literally had a gun pointed to her chest, and she was reacting as if it was filled with lukewarm water instead of piercing bullets.
“Watch it,” I snapped and, in spite of the little voice in my head telling me not to, pulled the trigger back. My dangerous, childish ego overwhelmed me. I never backed down from a dare. “That smart mouth of yours could get you killed.”
Her face softened. Gently, matter-of-factly, she stated, “You don’t seem like the type who would kill. Killers have a history. I look into your eyes and I see” – she tilts her head in consideration – “…loneliness. You seem entirely empty.”
It was like I was a book, and she was skimming through my pages, reading my story. I was too determined to hold on to my pride, however, to let her know that. “You don’t know me or my history.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” she sighed. The headlights formed a silhouette around the circumference of her head, forming a halo. She was an angel trying to talk sense into one of Satan’s hideous creatures. “Tell me, have you even taken out that gun until tonight, boy?”
Disregarding her question, the tired patches of my eyes contorted as I muttered, “Stop calling me ‘boy.’ I’m not a boy.”
“Then do as a man would rather than a boy.” She took a step forward, slowly edging her hand forward. Looking me in the eye – we both had eyes shaded like hazelnut, and they poured into one another – she placed her hand carefully upon my shoulder. “Put down the gun, and walk away.”
Time froze for a few moments. I stared at her long, hard and unamiable. She looked at me meaningfully, her kind expression never wavering. Not even when a dimwitted Chinese employee with a garbage bag in hand thrust the back door open, which produced a discordant noise as it clonked against the alley wall.
But I did. I wavered. I jumped at the sudden pounding, and then the gun went off. A short gasp emitted from my throat as I watched red – an awful, nauseating, deep red – emerge and spread across the woman’s light blue blouse. Finally, the startled sound I expected the second I pointed the gun at her slipped from her painted mouth. Now though, it was intolerable to hear, especially because I just had begun to lower the gun in surrender.
She wheezed, pressing a hand to her bloody chest, and her orbs flickered swiftly from place to place: me, the back door, the gun, her chest, me, her car, me. The peachy tone of her skin was fading too rapidly, her life force being extracted like the juice of a lemon, leaving behind only hollow rind. She blinked at me, her brown eyes sheening in salty tears. “Take… care…” She wasn’t granted the chance to complete that sentence. Instead, she collapsed, retching up a perturbing pool of blood that I couldn’t stand to look at. I flinched, averting my gaze, and noticed the Chinese employee still standing by the back door, obviously having witnessed everything.
Frenziedly, his face tight with terror, he pointed a finger at me. “Nǐ dǎ tā! Xiōngshǒu! Wǒ jiào jǐngchá!” (You shot her! Murderer! I’m calling the police!)
“No!” I bawled hopelessly, but the back door slammed shut. “Shit! Shit! SHIT!” I muttered, tugging at the short locks of hair sticking to my clammy forehead. Falling to the woman’s lifeless body, I caressed her right cheek with my knuckles, tears blurring my vision. Despairingly, I whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” I hated to abandon her, but I refused to go to prison.
Seizing her purse, I probed through it frantically and sighed as I yanked out the keys. Their high-pitched jingle gave me some relief. Unlocking the car door, I jabbed the keys into the ignition, revved up the engine, and hauled ass away from the curb.
The engine teemed as I sped up. I let out a significant amount of breath, aiming to sooth my sensitive nerves as well as the noxious gurgling in the pit of my stomach. Then, there came an unexpected sound; there was a stifled cry… coming from the backseat.
“Who – Who are you?”
Instinctively, I swerved the car to the left, narrowly missing a fire hydrant by a few inches. As the vehicle approached the sidewalk, I slammed my foot on the brake, jolting when the tires pounced against the concrete. Squeezing my eyes shut, I bit down hard on my bottom lip until there was a metallic tang smothering my taste buds. Not a dream, I thought miserably.
Languidly, my upper body steered around to peer at the backseat. It was at that moment that my cobwebbed heart churned at the most angelic sight. There in the backseat, strapped in a booster seat, was a little girl, about three or four years of age, with chubby cheeks, tiny curls as black as obsidian, lips as pink as ripe watermelon, and hazelnut eyes much like mine and those of the woman that I killed only minutes before. She looked achingly guileless.
“Where’s my mommy? She said… she said she’d only be gone a minute. She left her… phone in her office desk.” Her voice was indescribably soft and naïve – the exquisite voice of someone absent of experience. It was so wholly good, meaning that she was utterly clueless of life’s cruelties. It was precious. I’d forgotten what it was like to gaze into the pure eyes of a child, untainted by the melancholy and disenchantments of the world. Blessed, she was; too bad I was the one forced to butcher that blessing.
Today is November 15, 2005. Call it whatever you must: an anniversary, a tradition, a ritual. It’s been seven years since that heinous night. Presently, I sit perched on one of the clean benches at Westwood’s Cemetery, hidden beneath the length branches of an oak tree. I watch as Audrey – the little girl now turned teenager – kneels down in front of her mother’s tombstone, tracing the bold engraving tenderly.
“Do as a man would rather than a boy.”
I spent weeks rummaging through records and underwent a large sum of interrogative phone discussions to discover Isabelle’s grave site. A month ago, I paid to have the quote etched onto it, and Audrey gazed upon it with intense curiosity. She knows she had a mother, but I have never told her the story of her mother’s death in its entirety. I usually excuse her when the questions get too involved.
After the accident, I felt responsible for Audrey, and despite the fact that I was in no state to do so, took her under my wing. I believe that Isabelle, being the magnificent mortal she was, would wish her daughter all the happiness in the world, and so I strived to turn over a new leaf. We drove to New York City, dodging the police, a cold case never solved, and started our life together with a spotless slate. I needed a new identity, so I dyed my hair blonde, shaved the bristle off my chin, and put on a good chunk of weight. Marcus Gravis would be no more. My name now? Well, for reasons that I deem self-explanatory, I cannot tell you. I will tell you though that I have managed to rise above the status of a fugitive, for I’ve been an elementary music school for 3 years as of July and presented several awards for my achievements. I have proved myself to be a true asset, contrary to the belief of my father who used to often call me a “brainless dreamer.”
Yet, in spite of this fresh beginning, I cannot say whole-heartedly that I am better off. Isabelle’s daughter has not eased up to me. I think she suspects that I’ve done wrong by her. Truthfully, my shame toward murdering this beautiful girl’s mother haunts me every single day, so I probably wear my guilt on my sleeve. I feel selfish because part of the reason I kept her with me was so I wouldn’t be alone. I am also disgusting because, sometimes, I deceive myself into truly believing that I am doing right by Isabelle: that she would have wanted me, her killer, to raise her daughter as well as force her to live in disguise. Furthermore, I am despicable for having the audacity to fall in love with Audrey. I love her like she is my own daughter – as if my own DNA runs through her.
Mutely, I stride over and stand by Audrey’s side, positioning a precarious hand on her shoulder to indicate that, if she needed mine to weep on, it would be there. I sense Audrey growing stiff under my touch. She draws in her lips.
She does not love me. Her way of greeting me is an impassive nod. Our conversations are shallow and monotone. If I invite her to dinner, a party, or an occasion of any sort, she declines and stays cooped up in her room. I have given her everything I could afford to buy: a flat screen television, a cell phone and laptop, a stereo system, a bookcase, a wardrobe full of trendy clothes, an education, and more. It doesn’t make a difference. With a touch as faint as a feather, she swipes my hand aside like it’s an insect. She walks away, her head bowed down.
God has constructed a barrier between us – a barrier that will keep us forever divided. It is my punishment. It permits me not her love, but her eternal rejection. Unless I find the strength to tell Audrey how her mother really died, she will never accept me.
I won’t confess though. It would ruin me. Audrey’s disregard is already heartrending. To even think about what she would do… the extents she’d most definitely go to in order to escape her mother’s dreadful murderer… the thought is unbearable! I would have to live the rest of life unaccompanied. I would be left to stir in culpability.
I WON’T TELL! I REFUSE! …I can’t.
“Shame on me, Isabelle. Shame on me,” I whimper, the water works turning on, and pull out that very same gun from many years ago. I rest it on the tombstone. I am aware that there will be questions tomorrow, and that the gesture might even make the headline news, but I don’t care. The gun is the reminder of my deplorable past, and I need to be rid of it. God, be my judge. Let my suffocating shame be known, but let someone else divulge the truth.
I wait by the tombstone, silently imploring Isabelle’s forgiveness, and then follow after Audrey, knowing that she would be happier if I don’t.