The group of men circled Jared. His heart raced. They all carried guns and were bigger than him; each had already aced their initiations by murdering at least one person. He could feel their eyes on him, watching, as an old man cowered on the ground, pleading for his life.
A gang member close to him – he had not yet learned everyone's name – smiled and spat on the ground, nodding to Jared to do what needed to be done.
If only I could be at my old home, enjoying the sun in the backyard.
"How old are you kid?" the lead gang member asked.
Jared sized up the gang leader. Muscular and mean, he reminded him of a Rottweiler, bred for dogfighting.
Jared cleared his throat, "Fifteen."
"I can't hear you. You talk like a baby girl. What did you say?"
The man walked to stand in front of Jared and grabbed Jared's hair, yanking his head back. He heard a click in his neck at the force.
"I'm going to ask you again, and you are going to say in a loud voice, one like when some young chick is grabbing your balls and squeezing. You are going to say how old you are, so we can all hear you. We don't take sissies into our gang, especially a blond baby who can't talk like a man."
He let go of his hair and stepped back. "Now how old are you?"
Jared yelled this time, "Fifteen!"
The man nodded. "Good. Now prove to us you're a man!" the gangleader placed cold metal in his hands. A man in a dark trench coat and a hat stood behind the young men in the shadows. Jared couldn't get a good look at him, but he appeared to be older. Rain dripped off the man's hat, hiding his face.
He looked down to see it was a .38 caliber. His knees weakened. I can't kill him! God, what do I do? The old man cowered in front of him. He appeared homeless, pulled out of his makeshift hovel. But if I don't, I'm dead instead of him. Glancing up, his eyes darted around the circle of young men standing and waiting for him to pull the trigger. Images of him blowing the poor man's brains out made him queasy. The alley was empty, save for the young men, the stranger, and the scared old vagrant. The wind whipped through the street and the collar of his windbreaker snapped against his neck. He shivered from the breeze rushing through his clothes. The cool night air seemed to become dense and heavy with the violence about to ensue. He wondered if it was the grim reaper riding in to snatch its next victim's soul - his or the old man's.
The old man balanced on his knees, raising his hands up to Jared, pleading for him not to proceed with the task given to him. His face was full of whiskers and he reeked of booze.
A dark spot grew on the front of his pants. "Pleash, I dun nothin'," he cried out. "I, I have a boy, 'bout yur age." Tears streamed down his face.
"Just pop' him!" a large boy yelled.
"Slice is here to see you join us. Don't piss him off," the leader shouted.
Lightning struck in the distance and the sky filled with light. Well, isn't that fitting? Nothing like making the situation more intense, he thought as he looked down at the gun resting in his hands. Light reflected off the black barrel as another bolt of lightning graced the sky. He glanced back at the stranger in the background as the lightning flashed in the alley. The man's face appeared wrinkled and aged. A deep slice ran down the side of his face. So that must be Slice. He could see Slice as his lips curled into a sly smile. It chilled Jared to see him smile. It was as if a snake had seen its prey.
"Do it! Now!" another voice called out. He could sense the impatience in the man's loud voice.
The old man, though smelly and drunk, reminded him of his grandfather. He had spent countless summers with him and loved him dearly. It was last summer that he died of a heart attack. God, I can't do this, he thought. I have to, or I am done. He gritted his teeth with determination and slowly raised the gun to point it at the old man's head. Just pull the trigger and be done with it, he told himself. A siren in the near distance blared. The wind was whipping, throwing trash around in the air.
"God Dammit! Kill him now!" the leader shouted.
The gun shook as he held it – the barrel pointed at the old man. Pull it you fool! A blinding flash of light hit a trashcan not far up the alley and he could see his reflection in the glass from a nearby window. There he stood, about to make a decision that would shape his future. Rain dripped off his hair to his shoulders as if the sky was crying for him. Neither decision would have a good ending. The light faded and another bolt of lightning streaked the sky, followed by a deafening clap of thunder. I'd never be able to live with myself. Knowing what was to follow, he dropped the gun. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was the right thing to do. Another bolt of lightning followed. It was as though he were in the middle of a battle in the sky.
"No. I won't kill him." He focused on the ringleader, the largest of the crew closing in on him, cracking his knuckles, grinning. This would not be good. The old man looked up to him, his eyes narrowed, and Jared watched as he gave an understanding nod as if apologizing for the situation. He crawled backwards and through an open hole in the group of boys moving in to punish Jared.
The old man didn't make it far. Jared could see him as he bumped into Slice. One moment, the vagrant thought he was free, the next he had a gaping wound in his stomach spewing blood and a dark fluid to the wet pavement. Slice raised his head to focus on Jared, the knife still dripping blood. The old man held his middle and was moaning. It sounded as though a stray cat was giving birth, deep and guttural.
The leader stepped forward. "I offer you protection, and you do this? You refuse me, you refuse us. Over a drunk?" he motioned to the old man in a pool of blood. "You're dead, like him." Slice gripped the old man's head and sliced his throat open. Jared felt his knees buckle at the sight.
Pain spread through Jared's back. He wondered if he heard the padded "thunk" sound first or felt the pain first. He fell to his knees and saw what appeared to be a bat in one of the thug's hands. He tried to block another attack aimed at his face with a nightstick. It hit his forearm and it popped as the nightstick hit bone, followed by a crunch as it broke through his cheekbone. Red filled his vision and his face was wet. He wished it were just the rain, but knew differently. Falling face-first into the tar, he curled into a fetal position. Pain spread over his body as he took countless hits from many attackers. All for a homeless drunk, he thought. Pain stabbed him from everywhere on his body.
Another flash brightened the sky as he stared up past the faces grinning at the hurt they were causing. A bright bolt darted past clouds, branching out in several directions. He saw Slice looking down on him, that sly smile on his wrinkled and worn face again.
Slice pulled Jared's head back, pulling his hair to expose his neck. He's going to kill me. His vision faded and his eyes stung from blood dripping down his forehead. A familiar noise rang in his ears and he tried to focus on it. Police!
Jared expected cold steel running across his windpipe; instead the old man leaned close to his ear. He could feel the man breathing. "Nobody denies Slice. I won't end this here. If you live, I'll get you and I'll make you suffer. I'll slice you and slice you. I'll make you last. You will wish for the death that bum received." Slice pushed his head to the wet tar.
"Time to go! We can finish this later," the leader yelled.
"Man, look at him! The punk's bleedin' out!" another voice shouted, followed by laughter and then the sound of footsteps running away.
A moment passed and more footsteps approached.
"Son, hang in there. I need an ambulanc-, " the voice cut out and blackness closed around him.
Thunder boomed above, and to Jared's surprise, he stood looking down at the .38. Instead of dropping the gun, he brought it up to aim at the old man's head and pulled the trigger. He wanted to stop himself, but couldn't. Someone else or some force had the control. The emotions frightened him. It wasn't remorse or shock, but exhilaration. He had the power over this person. He chose whether he lived or died. Of course, the right thing to do was to kill him. That's what a real man would do. The strong live, the weak die - easy as that. He smiled at the thought. Blood spattered the tar and the man's body fell backwards into a lifeless heap. The body twitched and red covered the ground. Red contrasting with the blackness of the night was quite beautiful. The gang came forward and patted him on the back for a job well done. Slice stood behind the men, clapping. A moment later, he turned and vanished down the alley. They respect me! A blinding flash stung his eyes.
Flash! Beep, Beep, Beep.
"I don't believe it. We've got a pulse." A voice echoed through a fog.
Pain spread through him, but was soon vanquished by a needle in his veins. Deep sleep followed.
Open your eyes! Jared yelled at himself and tried as hard as he could to do it, but it was no use. Voices came to him from the distance, muffled as if blocked by pillows. He searched out their source and quickly grew tired. This had become a usual event. He'd try time and time again, but would always grow tired and the blackness would surround him.
Warmth spread through him when he noticed someone, who he imagined to be his mother, touch his hand. He couldn't understand how he knew it was his mother sitting near him, he just did. How long has it been? What is happening? Mom! Are you there? Please! He tried to yell out, but it was no good.
"I can't take this anymore!" his mother said.
"Please Lana, have faith. He's a strong boy," his father replied wearily.
"It's been three years, John," her voice wavered, "I can't take seeing him like this. The doctors keep saying he's never going to come back."
Three years! God. Why can't I open my eyes? He tried to thrash out. Nothing. He tried harder. Nothing. Please, Mom! I'm here! It was no use. No one heard him except for himself.
"Lana! You can't talk like that. He needs us," his dad replied in a controlled tone.
"John, you must let go. What would you want me to do if it were you? I love him, John, and it tears me apart to have to think like this, but he is already gone, sweetheart."
No, I'm not! Mom, I'm not. I'm here. Jared wanted to cry. He tried to move something, anything. Nothing.
"Lana, I'd never forgive myself. Ever."
"I know, honey. I know." She was crying. Jared's father joined her.
"It's not fair. Why did it have to happen to him? It's my fault," John paused a moment and took a deep breath before continuing, "I never should have pushed us to move."
"No. It's not your fault. We did what we had to do, just like we will do what we have to do now. We are his parents, John, and we need to help our son when he needs help. He needs to move on."
"Tomorrow," he replied.
Shit! I can get out of this. Please. I don't want to die yet! he thought. This had been the longest period yet of being aware of things around him. If only I didn't go out that night. It was only supposed to be a friend showing him around the city and maybe going to see a movie. His friend told him he belonged to a gang, but he never imagined he'd try to bring him in on it as well. If I get out of here, I'm going to pay him a visit, he thought. It then occurred to him that his friend might be dead by now.
"It's always tomorrow, John. We need to do this now. We're barely hanging on as it is - I," her voice shook, she paused to steady her voice, "I just can't take seeing our baby like this anymore."
"Tomorrow, I promise."
Warm air brushed his cheek as his mom leaned over to kiss him goodbye, followed by sounds of footsteps fading away. He wanted to drift off to the blackness again, but fought the pull of the abyss. No! I need to fight this or tomorrow I'm dead.
More footsteps approached. A woman's voice, a beautiful voice, began singing a song he did not know. Gentle hands slid under him and rolled him to his side. The sound of water dripped into a bucket as if a sponge were being wrung out. She ran the sponge down his back. Weak prick, I can't even wash myself. God knows how many times some pretty girl changed my messed sheets, he chided himself and wanted to cry again.
"I know you're there, Jared, and I know you can beat this," her voice told him.
Please tell me how! Please! He tried to yell, but again, no sound escaped his lips.
"Time is running out, Jared, you need to pull through this."
Another voice, this time deeper, interrupted her.
"You done with the scrub-down yet, Kate? Don't spend too much time on this one. He's on his way out. Machines are going to be shut down tomorrow. Already spoke with the parents." His voice seemed unusually upbeat.
"Frank, do you really need to talk that way in front of a patient, comatose or not?"
"Oh, get over yourself, honey. It happens to them all."
The woman rolled him over to his back again and placed her hand on his chest. He smelled a flowery scent. It was so good to sense something long lost to him. Her voice whispered in his ear.
"Don't listen to him."
She walked out and Jared heard a slap followed by a yelp from the woman. "Try that again and I'll report you for sexual harassment."
She kept walking and the door closed behind her. The darkness called to him, its peacefulness beckoning for him to drift off and to forget about his problems, leaving the emotional pain behind. Instead, he lay there, focusing on every muscle in his body, searching for the one that might give in and set him free.
The hours passed and he became exhausted. From time to time, his mind would drift and he would see himself. In the vision he was not confined to a hospital bed, but roaming the streets, a gang of followers behind him. Sometimes, he was selling bags filled with white powder to kids; other times he'd be roughing up some poor person. Age didn't matter. Whoever looked at him the wrong way caused intense anger and he'd lash out, his crew following his lead. He saw himself in drive-by shootings, taking down enemy gang members, often hitting innocent people in the crossfire. He'd feel a pang of guilt from time to time, but would push it aside.
Memories of his own life would rush back to him. I am in a bed. This is not me. Thank God, this is not me! I would never hurt anyone like that...not me! he would tell himself and his focus would return to trying to move.
A new sensation overwhelmed him. Had he moved his finger? Something was different. Countless times, he had tried to move something – anything – and this time he had. He tried again, but the communication of having twitched some small muscle in his finger did not reoccur. The knowledge of time had long disappeared from him. He figured he must have spent hours trying to replicate the movement and shamed himself for not being able to. Exhausted from his exertion, he faded out, unable to withstand the pull of the darkness he so desperately wanted to avoid.
Jared clawed in the darkness, trying to find his way back to the state of consciousness he had been in before slipping off the night before. His father's voice echoed through the darkness.
"Son, I'm so sorry. I should have been there for you. I hope you'll find peace and happiness. Please forgive me." His voice was unsteady. He cleared his throat.
"John, it's not your fault. You know that," Jared's mother said, comforting his father.
"Are you sure you want to do this? There might still be a chance. He fought hard to survive this long." This voice sounded like the woman who had washed his back the previous night. Jared tried to remember her name. Cathy? The name didn't fit. He concentrated harder. Kate! Her name is Kate!
"This is not your concern. Do you have any idea how hard this is for my wife and me? This isn't a decision we are making without any thought," his father said, using a carefully controlled tone.
Move. Move, you idiot! You're going to die! Jared thought and tried moving the finger he had felt twitch the night before. Nothing.
"Kate, please go and help the patient next door," a deep voice that Jared knew to be the doctor's said and then paused. "Mr. and Mrs. Stone had to make a hard decision and we need to respect that."
The sound of the doctor's voice stirred something in Jared. Heat radiated in his skin. It was anger. It felt good to feel angry again. At least he was feeling something--even if it was negative. He recalled the doctor's name from the previous day when he had picked on the poor nurse. Frank. Jared felt a surge of pride and if he'd been able to smile, he would have. Pieces were starting to come together and stay together. No longer were they fragmented memories that made no sense.
"I'm really sorry, that's not what I was implying. Doctor, it's only that he is still retaining the fluids well, and he appears to be healthy," Kate said.
"Enough! Kate, please leave," the doctor replied.
Ok, finger, move. Please! Jared focused as hard as he could. There! He sensed motion in his index finger.
He heard someone leave the room. Frank's voice echoed through again.
"I'm sorry about Kate. She is very emotional. She means well, but sometimes she oversteps."
"No, we understand," his mom replied. "This isn't easy for us. Are you sure he won't have pain?"
Why? Look at me. I can move. I can move! Jared moved his finger once more, but no one was watching.
"I assure you, Mrs. Stone, he won't feel anything. We are only providing food and nutrients to keep him alive. Once we shut that down, he will pass peacefully in a few days," the doctor paused while his father blew his nose. "Remember, he is not conscious, so he will not feel any different."
"Please do it then," she said in a resolute tone.
A hand wrapped around his arm and he felt something being withdrawn. No! I'm here. Why aren't you looking? I'm here! Mom! Dad! Jared searched for another way to get their attention, but he was unable to move anything else. He tried to move his finger again, but it was no use. He heard his parents stand up and his mom kissed him on the cheek.
"I love you, Jared." She began to cry and left the room.
His father squeezed his arm. "I love you, son."
Frank was still in the room, opening and closing drawers. His footsteps approached the bed. Jared sensed the doctor staring down at him as he sat down in the chair next to Jared's bed. One more time. Jared focused on his hand and twitched his finger again.
"I know you're there, kid. You don't need to prove anything to me. I've seen lots of people like you come in and waste away, twitching fingers, toes, eyelashes. The point is, you're a drain on the system. All that money wasted on vegetables like you when others could lead lives. Yet they don't receive the care because of you idiots draining the system. No, your time is up." Frank laughed and left the room, closing the door behind him.
What now? What can I do? The abyss beckoned, and he drifted off into the blackness--or at least what should have been blackness.
He found himself walking down a dark street. Three other men were behind him. In his hand he held a black pistol and his fingers ran over some engraving on the hilt of the gun. He looked down to see "J-Rock" spelled out in gold lettering.
"Yo! What'up, J?" a man asked from behind him.
Confused, he turned around to see three men staring at him. The most muscular of the three spat, his arms crossed. He adjusted his hood to cover more of his face, his gold chain clanking as it moved. Jared could make out a gold front tooth.
"Where am I? Who are you? And why do I have a gun in my hand? Better yet, how the hell am I walking?" Jared asked.
The men around him started laughing. The man next to "Gold Tooth", who was much smaller and had a nasty gash on his cheek, joined in. "Look like J got in da stash!" He spat on the ground and Jared couldn't help but stare at the nasty wound on the man's cheek. I'll call him "Gash" because that's all I can see when I look at him. Damn, that is nasty, Jared thought as he watched Gash laugh. "He worse den you, Fatty!" Gash wheeled around and hit the third man on his shoulder.
It was no wonder why they gave Fatty his name. He appeared to be at least three hundred pounds. Even with the fat, he looked as though he could lift a Mac truck clear off the ground. Fatty frowned at Gash and the other man backed off in a hurry.
"Just messin wid ya." Gash tried to calm the bigger man down before he turned him into a pancake.
Gold Tooth stepped closer to Jared, his head lowered. Jared's pulse quickened and he spotted the man's thumb twitching where he held his pistol. I'm in a gang. This isn't good. If I look weak, they'll kill me. Jared glanced at the two other men behind Gold Tooth. They both stood watching.
"If you are high man, I'll kill you myself. I aint following a junkie to war." Gold Tooth sneered at him as he spoke.
Stay cool. He raised the gun to point it at the other man. "Don't mess with me. I should kill you for questioning me." He nodded to the two men behind Gold Tooth, "Yo, you both wid me? Or this clown?" he motioned the gun at Gold Tooth. "I'll make sure you both are rewarded. Choose wisely."
The two men drew their own guns and pointed them at Gold Tooth, who was now backing down, his hand shaking slightly on his own gun, pointed at the ground.
"Nah man, it all cool. I wid you, J." Gold Tooth's voice shook as he spoke.
Going to piss himself, Jared relished the thought, but he didn't know why. It felt good to push fear into someone. This isn't me! Why do I feel this way? He lowered his gun.
A noise erupted from behind where Jared stood. He saw Gash jump back at the sound. Jared wheeled around to see five other men, all wearing green bandannas around their heads. Each of them were carrying guns, one of which was pointed at him. A loud pop sounded as a burst of smoke erupted from its barrel. A sickening, crushing noise rang in his mind and pain spread from his shoulder as he fell backward to the ground.
The pain had disappeared and the familiar blackness covered him like a cozy blanket. What is happening to me? Am I dying already? Jared embraced the darkness.