The first sensation he discerned as he awoke was the taste of blood in his mouth. There was the taste, then the overwhelming urge to vomit, his stomach outraged with intake of bodily fluid and from enduring the inevitable aftershocks left behind when adrenaline blitzkriegs through a body, enabling it to do, or in this case, to endure.
The synapses of his brain began to fire, reflexes reminding him to –
Turn your head. Now, breathe!
Almost simultaneous to an expulsion of blood and bile, his lungs – laboring, restricted beneath a fractured rib cage – expanded as he pulled in a gulp of polluted air. Trying to sit up, realizing he couldn’t, his mind began to replay the horrifying events that brought him to the filthy recesses of one of the city’s thousand random alleyways and the growing puddle of blood beneath his crumpled body.
There was a guy, like a lot of guys who nightly trolled his section of street, looking for a good time – a form of respite from his mundane, pathetic existence. He seemed decent enough – for a man looking to take a young kid out, get loaded, and have his way, but he was much worse than any one of “those guys.” He was a hater, and he wasn’t alone. Luring the boy into the alley, promises of nirvana upon his hands and lips, he was joined by other haters, at least one of them meaner than himself. The boy was pretty sure the meanest one was also secretly queer. He, the probably queer one, hit the hardest of any of them, used gloved fists, but the man must have had stones for knuckles because he broke bones with those leathered weapons. The shape, the force of his hands, remained imprinted upon his cheek and temples.
A siren sounded far in the distance, grew closer, ushering hope, briefly before fading away to silence, and all he heard was his labored pulse, his own mind ridiculing his foolishness for thinking an instant that anyone would find him when nobody really cared for anybody in this city – hadn’t in a long time.
The boy found himself thinking about his mother, a drunk loser to be sure, and not much better than the sleaze he dealt with nightly among the clubs and byways and cheap motels, but he felt he must be dying, and one can’t help one’s thoughts while
nearing death. He desperately wished she was here with him, to ease his pain and keep him company in the darkness. It was as if a fragment of his mind knew that there was a time, certainly long ago, when she truly cared. She must have, once, tenderly looked down, touched, kissed him, shed a tear of concern, and
Sang a song
An odd, hypnotic melody swirled through his head, and it took some moments for him to think that it wasn’t him – wasn’t some false memory of a mother who never was, because he didn’t recognize this music, growing louder, closer. The words would not fully clear their way past the haze in his brain, but there was something about lost children, a rescuer reaching, and
Growing near, more rapid
“What’s your name, friend?” a hurried voice asked, breaking into fragile consciousness and reforming the jagged lines dividing the bludgeoned boy’s grasp of reality from hallucination.
“My name?” He wasn’t sure if he’d meant to speak the words or not, but either way, he managed less than a whisper, just barely moving his swollen and bloodied lips.
Who asks for a name in a place like this?
There was a shuffling noise, followed by several tapping sounds
The man’s voice sounded frantic. “Hello? I need an ambulance as fast as one can fly. There’s a kid lying in the street, messed up real bad!”
Pain sensors fired afresh, reeling in a measure of the man’s distress, and the more he thought about how bad this was – that he’d become so enamored, so in love with every score he could lay hands on, just so he could feel some level of being OK
for a precious few moments – so much so that he would sell his soul night after night to fund that next score, and the next and next – the more he dwelled on his own wretched nature, the more anxious he became. Heart racing, his senses began to spin faster.
I deserve to die just like this.
“I don’t know where we are. An alley somewhere near Post, I think.”
The man couldn’t give the operator an address because there was none. People only came here if they wanted to get lost.
“Can’t you just trace my friggin’ phone?” he yelled. “Screw this!”
Noisy shuffling, then the boy felt hands grip him by the armpits, and he was rising from the ground. The man was strong – the boy knew because he found himself floating several feet in the air, suspended, turning from the shadowy depths of the trashed alleyway, into the streets.
“Where we going?” he managed to ask.
“Someplace safe.” replied the man, and he didn’t seem taxed at all, despite the burden he carried.
A grunt from the man as he shifted the boy’s limp body to support him with one arm while –
Come on, you piece a…” he heard the man shout as he fiddled with what sounded like a car door. A loud clang, followed by a metallic creak, then, “Here we go!”
He was hoisted into a vehicle; landing on hard vinyl, he let out a yelp as the man’s harsh manipulations managed to push broken bone upon bone. The boy’s eyes were clear enough now to see the man, dressed in a thick grey jacket and a black baseball cap, crossing the front of a massive vehicle, and he was aware of something foul smelling.
The driver’s door opened, the stranger climbing inside as he simultaneously took hold of a black something, that the boy quickly saw was a radio.
“Dispatch, this is Unit 9 – I gotta break off my route for a minute; an emergency just came up.”
Then began a short exchange where Mr. Dispatch, who seemed to be in charge, was telling the guy he better not miss such and such street again because they’ve been getting complaints, and the man wasn’t saying a whole lot besides “don’t worry, Larry; I
got it”, and soon the boy understood that the foulness he was smelling was the vehicle itself.
He’s a garbage man. I’ve been picked up by a garbage man. How appropriate.
A loud rumble preceded an aggravating vibration which accentuated every angry, ravaged tissue in the boy’s body.
“Oh God, I’m gonna die.” he blurted, as his chest felt to be on fire.
“You’re going to be fine, kid.” said the garbage man. “We’re not far from a hospital – least not the way I drive!”
There was a jolt as the hulking container of stench lurched forward; the motion, mixed with recent trauma, quickly brought on a bout of nausea; the boy spewed pale liquid, blood-mingled, and he absurdly apologized – some innate sense of politeness
“That’s okay.” responded the stranger. “Smells like hell in here anyway.” he said with a crooked smile on his stubble-coated face.
“Why you doing this?” asked the boy, his voice trailing off as black voids began to form in his vision. It was excruciatingly hot in the rancid cab of the truck, and the boy couldn’t focus long enough to hear, but the man was saying something about kids of his own and never wanting them to be in pain.
What’s that got to do with me?
The black voids gave way to warm light within a fog, and he felt in that moment that time was not really taking place in the normal way; he wondered if this was what dying felt like – not as scary as he’d have expected. Someone was within the fog, sweeping through and whispering, sounded like his name, being whispered over and over. He thought this someone in the fog must have been looking for him, and he thought the search must have been happening for some time because there was earnestness in the voice of the Whisperer. He wanted to respond, to call out, but he hesitated, knowing he’d be found in such a sorry state, and then the Whisperer might be disappointed that he’d ever searched for him. But there was warmth in that voice, triggering a sense of peace in the boy, like his life had been better once, long ago, and the Whisperer was there with him then –
“Your name, son. What’s your name?” A voice less familiar crashed through the boy’s dream. He was lying down now, rolling through glass doors, and then there were many
voices, all talking over one another. Someone clad in blue scrubs was shining a light into his eyes, still asking his name, and he longed to go back to the fog, so the Whisperer might finally find him.
“Think his name is Curtis.” He heard the voice of the garbage man.
How does he know?
“I heard him say it in the truck on the way.”
“Are you the boy’s father?” asked another voice, entering the front of the ER.
“Huh? No, I’m not.” the garbage man said.
Looking up, the boy saw the stained, grey coat of the man, and blue eyes beneath the brim of a shabby black cap, peering down into his own eyes.
“So who are you?” came the other voice.
“Me?” His voice trailed off as a bead of tears began to wet his dirty cheeks. His gaze was still fixed upon the battered face of one of the city’s thousand runaway street kids – drugged out, hopeless, frail and broken in body.
“I’m no one.” he said. “I’m just the guy who found this boy.”