The door opens and I am on my feet. The men that enter the room are wearing surgical masks. I would think they were the doctors coming to do their routine checkups had I not received one the week before. I catch sight of their expensive and fitted suits. No doubt they are important. I straighten my spine; drop my eyes to the floor. It would not do to look disrespectful. Not here, under the cold fluorescence of the unforgiving room in which I have made my home.
The men head past me as though I am invisible. I feel my insides start to relax. My fists uncurl. They did not come for me. I remain frozen in my place, watching. A few feet away is the young man. They brought him in the night before, the doctors. I pretended to be asleep while they dragged his body through the doorway and dropped him inside. The reek of blood that emanated from him was overwhelming. The room was usually devoid of any smell besides the disinfectant that constantly pumped through the vents. As though I were a germ that needed to be eliminated.
It was something I had noticed, living here. The absence of smells.
The young man was unconscious. So quiet and still that after a while I was convinced he was dead. Odd, how the thought of being alone with a corpse was comforting to me. A corpse could not come to and decide I was the enemy. Me, a sallow wisp of a girl.
I had fallen asleep last night thinking about the color red.
When I awoke, the young man had moved. He was sleeping facedown ten feet from where I lay. Surely alive. There was no time to panic; he had left me well enough alone.
“Has he spoken to you?” The crisp question that cuts through the silence is addressed to me. I raise my eyes to the patent leather shoes before me and shake my head.
“Not a word?”
“No, sir.” I know enough to know when a question warrants more than a simple head movement. There is a hesitation in the murmurs that had overtaken my silent space. Someone whispers something to the man before me. I catch a whiff of cologne on the air.
“What’s your name?”
“Mary.” I say. Immediately I know I have said the wrong thing. I have forgotten again. There is the quick intake of breath from somewhere beyond my interrogator and I move to correct my mistake, “Sadia.”
Sadia is the name they gave me when I was first brought here. It is popular among the Firsts out in civilization. Mary was one of the forbidden names. My mother knew that when she gave it to me, but she had done so anyway. She was always doing things like that when she was alive. Perhaps she is the reason I am here. All because of a name. Mary. It is bland, and I’d never liked it much anyway.
“Sadia.” I repeat with more confidence, because I can tell the man before me is still sizing me up.
“This boy should not be in here with you.”
His tone makes me feel like I should apologize. As though I am to blame for this young man’s unwanted presence on my floor. Someplace within me, a part of myself that has been tucked neatly away wants to comment that it was not me who put him here. That would be the ultimate disrespect. I do not want to be punished for this boy that I do not know. I bite my tongue and stare intently at the reflection of the fluorescent light in the toe of the leather shoes before me.
There is a knock at the door. An overly polite woman is clearing her throat. I do not look at her. The shoes disappear from my field of vision.
“Hello, Mr. Tantos?” She is asking. Her flowery voice seems strange against the starkness of my room. Out of place.
More whispering reaches my ears. I catch bits and pieces of the conversation as certain words are expressed with more frustration than others.
“…isolation… mandatory in these premises… footholds of the system…”
Finally, the woman’s voice grows somewhat stern. “Mr. Tantos, with all due respect, Director Magus has placed the resident here for now. The young woman hardly poses a problem, she is one of our most compliant patients in the program.”
The resident. That means the boy that lays so still upon the floor before me has yet to be given a new name. I wonder if he came to be here the same route as me- if he was torn, kicking and screaming, from the arms of his father. If martyrdom had left him parentless and obvious before the ever watchful Firsts.
No. I allow my eyes to flicker back up to his figure before dropping them back down. Even from here I can tell he is far too old for that kind of behavior. What then? I burn for his story. For the first time since last night, I hope they will leave him here.
It is a stupid thing for which to hope. He is probably raving mad.
The woman has won over the masked men with her flowery voice. They retreat from the room. I listen to their footsteps fade upon the floor. The door is slammed shut. The latch clicks into place.
We are alone, this boy and I.
This is the breathing out. This is the hot exorcism of stifling air, of stubborn bits of comfortable delusion that have attached resolutely to your heart.
This is the breathing in. This is the fervent gasping, the inhalation of stinging shards of reality. The not so pretty bits of black and white that stain the rose colored glasses of your subconscious.
This is the writing on your skin. The story of your life- inscribed beautifully upon pages of decomposing flesh. The lines on your palms lay out the signature of He that formed you with His ample fingers. This is the unwavering Author that pieced together the words of your life with loving clarity.
This is the groove that marks the cross He wove into your spine. It darkens and it deepens and it grows too heavy. This is the air, slipping idly between your pores, that whispers wordlessly. This is the worldly infringement upon your soul. It gives off a sense of rot that is reminiscent of your inclination towards entropy- you who have been destined for perpetuity.
This is His name. It has been placed like a seal upon your heart. Too holy for utterance, it is etched among your veins and scratched upon your flesh. This is the fingerprint, pressed lovingly upon your flesh and marking you as a Shepherd brands His flock.
This is the Word. Do you know the way to the dwelling of light, or the place of darkness? His heavenly speech, inscribed upon your heart, is a map of the wilderness. This is the way back to the eternal pastures of your Beloved.
This is the breathing out. This hungry wail that forms upon your brittle lips. These are the footprints besides yours as the weight of your spine throws you down upon your knees. This is the breathing in- the frantic grasping at fleeting points of light, blemished and darkened from constantly clawing at your eyes.
This is the patient waiting, in remembrance of Zion on the shores where she sat and wept for her sins.
This is the breathing out. This is the exclamation of joy in His presence. This is the comfort of being transparent to the Father, of the slow, inexhaustible restoration of salvation.
This is the breathing in. This is the shaky inhalation, the desperate clinging to life. This is the story transcribed upon my flesh and He has shown me how it ends.
I will come up from the wilderness, leaning on my Beloved.
It was the idea of kittens that drove her eyes downward. Helpless kittens, fuzzy and mewing would-be-sucklings with their grey slit eyes barely open enough to see more than a shadowed and sinister representation of the shadowed and sinister world in which they had been carelessly abandoned. Frightened kittens. Hungry and cold and crawling around meekly, neglected on the side of some highway somewhere in the tall, failing grass that snaps and sputters against the rusted guardrail; undulating in the unforgiving wake of passing cars. Kittens, stepping out onto the cracked and treacherous asphalt with their silently unsure, petite paws, covered with soft white down, barely aware of the eighty-five mile an hour danger speeding towards their toes with grinding gears and the pungent, burning smell of rubber. It was kittens, and the meager mewing resonated always in the back of her mind, itching at her fingertips.
She watches as she drives, her eyes trained on the tall grass at the side of the road. Glued to her task, she tightens her grip on the steering wheel. The car is silent. She holds her breath, studying with dutiful patience as the dizzying gray of the guardrail goes streaming by her finger-stained window. Every day she is watching. Every day she is waiting.
She imagines herself seeing one- finally. Her subconscious pulls up fuzzy illustrations of two tri colored ears popping out from behind a black, synthetic trash bag. She sees herself stopping the car, pulling over with such force that those behind her honk their horns, swerving around her tail with unnecessary acceleration. She imagines herself sensing the mistrust as she approaches; a stranger. Even in her mind she can see the fear in the arched backs- hear it in the muted, indignant hisses that will rise up from the dying blades of grass. She will be patient. She will kneel and wait for them to come closer. She will take them in her car and take them somewhere better. She will show them the love they deserve.
She thinks of all this and she smiles. She watches the road. Something white catches her eye and she exhales loudly. It is becoming an instinct. Her foot slides unconsciously off of the gas, the tip of her big toe grazing the brake through the thick sole of her shoe. She leans towards the window. Her forehead grazes the cool glass. She sighs. Accelerates. It was only litter. An ugly, Styrofoam blemish, half buried in the soil.
Her daddy said she was too empathetic. He said that it was silly to watch for kittens all the time. A waste of time. It was unsafe to keep her eyes off of the road.
How can I not be what I am she thinks to herself in the silence. Her own voice echoes in her head, repeating like a record that has been too overplayed. Her bright eyes are brimming with empathy. Overflowing, really. She searches in the setting sun for kittens.
She seeks them faithfully, if there can be faith in seeking out the helpless. Her eyes are wide and her pupils are steadily expanding in the settling dusk. She seeps hunger through her pores. Even her bones ache, rattling in the cold for the fantasized and vulnerable kittens. She yearns to see a sign of the downy newborns she has imagined for so long, cringing timidly from the onslaught of traffic.
A squeal of tires and a release of some hundred decibels from the grille of an oncoming vehicle sends a torrent of adrenaline surging through the girl’s scalp. Her eyes wrench off of the road. Her heart constricts violently as she takes in the narrowly missed, would-have-been fatal accident frozen momentarily just outside of her passenger window. A balding man in an old Ford is mouthing mutely at the glass. His elbow is locked. The white knuckles of his right hand are shaking on the steering wheel. His left palm is still planted firmly on the horn.
Searching fruitlessly for empathy-envisioned kittens, she has driven out of her lane. She feels the red hot embarrassment spreading like a wildfire to the burning tips of her freckled ears. She itches her nose and rolls down the window. Her empathetic eyes fill with shiny apologies.
I am so sorry she says. Her cracking voice is sincere. It sounds funny in her ringing ears, resonating still from the blast of the horn.
The man is already driving off.
Just look where you’re going and stop staring out the damn window.
She nods. He can’t even see her anymore and she feels foolish. She rolls up her window. Her foot brushes the gas tentatively. The car jumps forward and she rolls into the slow lane. The clicking of the blinker is too fast and too frenzied. She shuts it off and drives in silence. Her thoughts graze lightly over the vision of the kittens. She is too embarrassed to look. Her eyes are locked Forward. Both hands are tense upon the wheel. Ten and two she thinks and she smiles bashfully. She can’t stop shaking.
She looks where she is going. The setting Sun is radiating out in warm golden hues from behind the looming, clustered fir trees. They are black masses, casting shadows across the weathered and broken asphalt and strangling the Sun. Downgrading cautiously, the car rounds a corner and, with a dazzling wink, the girl is blinded. The Sun bursts free in its final, glorious moments before sinking behind the outlying hills for the night. It emanates brilliantly across the horizon. The leaden clouds that streak across the sky are painted with radiant hues of crimson and gold.
An audible gasp escapes from the girl. It is subdued in the stale oxygen of the car. On a sudden impulse, she rolls down the window. She revels in the cool evening air that rushes deafeningly across her face and through her messy curls.
Suddenly, a small, soft whisper is carried in with the rush of wind.
It is faint. Barely discernible. The girl shuts her windows breathlessly. The soft whir of gears overtakes the sound of the cold blasts of air now beating against the glass.
Lean not on your own understanding.
She breathes deeply. Every molecule of her body seems to be pulled towards the setting Sun. The mundane concept has suddenly become a miraculous vision to her. The Sun has lit the dark asphalt on fire. Gleaming with streaks of red, it rises.
I will make your paths straight.
She smiles. Her fingers relax upon the wheel. Her heart pounds against her ribcage.
She sees her exit off to the right. She turns to take it, hardly able to rip her burning eyes away from the setting Sun. It grows dark again as she brakes her way down the curving hill towards her house. The trees are overpowering, flinging shadows down upon her mercilessly. She thinks of the park up the street from her house. With a subdued wistfulness she recalls how her mother used to take her there, back in the days of early bedtimes and Popsicle stains. She remembers sitting on the swing and kicking her legs up into the air until the orange glow on her skin had faded and the peepers had begun to sing their evening song.
The Sun will not have set there yet she thinks and she breezes past her street.
The park is empty. The Sun is peeking over the tops of the trees. The ground here, too, seems lit on fire. Elongated shadows cast about from the trees and the slides. Thin and slanted, they are a stark contrast from the bloodied gold hue that fills the expanse with quiet luminosity. She heads for the swings, feeling the warmth tickling her skin. It warms her bones from the crisp autumn air.
She sits. The weathered rubber creases under her weight and the rusted chain links clatter together. She swings herself lightly on the balls of her feet. Her eyes- those compassionate eyes- are closed and she revels in the Kiss of the sunset.
She sits there in silence, her eyes shut, until she feels the cover of darkness creeping over her skin. The warmth that was brought by the Sun remains steadfast in her bones. It wards off the mounting chill and leaves the promise of morning embedded deep in the fragile layers of her soul.
She opens her eyes. She takes a dizzying step off of the swing. She feels light. Lighter than air, in a way she has not felt in years. In a dreamlike trance- a peaceful waking rest- she walks back to her car. It sits askew in the dark parking-lot across the freshly mowed soccer field.
As she saunters across the turf she revels in the cool, fresh-dew residue the neatly trimmed green grass leaves on her bare ankles. She keeps her gaze trained upon the sky. Her neck is craned back and her hair tickles her shoulder blades. The stars are out in a dazzling display. She breathes in and out deeply. Her gray breath hangs, smoky and insubstantial, before her in the crisp night air. She watches as it dissipates weightlessly into the darkness.
In the stillness there is a soft, hushed cry. It is plaintive, and yet it is a lovely sound. It is full of Life, or the yearning for it. The girl stops in her tracks. It does not belong to this beautiful, brisk evening and yet the alien sound is familiar to her heart.
She closes her eyes and takes a single step. Her toes knock lightly against something material. Hard. She glances downward and gasps. Her bright, empathetic eyes are still lined with the shimmer of the stars from the sky above her head. They are glittering constellations of joy, insurmountable and pure. She gasps and she smiles and the Sun pours out from her lips.
It is a box. It is flimsy and pathetic cheap cardboard. It is nestled against the thin white post of the soccer goal. The tall green blades of grass- the ones that the lawnmower could not quite reach- encircle the post and brush the sides of the heavy brown papered container. On the side someone has scribbled a note. The cramped, messy handwriting is redolent of desperation. She can still smell the Sharpie.
Free. Please take to a good home.
She falls down onto her knees, her delicate fingers grasping the damp siding of the box. I am what You’ve made me she thinks and she smiles down at the kittens that stare up at her with sleepy eyes. And I’ll go where You lead me.
She feels empathy filling her heart until it is swollen with emotion. Cautiously, lovingly, she lifts the box from the dew-laden grass and walks towards her car.