In Diego's dreams, the cancer was a man. Its pale white skin the color of corpses. Stretched too thin over jagged bones. Black sinkholes in place of eyes. Shards of glass in place of teeth. Its spindly fingers far too long, growing still longer as it stalked Diego’s mother from behind, reaching for her throat as its jaw unhinged and opened wide.
And Diego stepped between them. Swatted aside the fingers. Punched the cancer square in its yawning mouth. Shattered its teeth. Transformed its hollow skull into so many bone fragments, clumps of hair and tattered ribbons of rotting skin.
He whirled back around to find his mother. She was gone.
* * *
The dreams, combined with the bus’s ancient lumpy seats, had left Diego sleepless for most of the thirty-six hour ride from Iowa. He had listened to hip hop for hours on end, eyes closed, trying to drown out thoughts of his mother. It hadn't worked.
He peered out into the evening’s fading light through a window streaked with grime and salt. The streets were starting to look familiar. South Station, in Boston’s downtown, had felt like alien terrain. Not surprising. He couldn’t remember his mother ever having taken him into the heart of the city when they'd visited years ago. But as his bus left the city's center and the passing streets grew more dirty, the houses more rundown, Diego knew that he was nearing his new home. Dorchester. Only six miles from the city's downtown, but it felt much further away.
He exited the bus at the intersection of Blue Hill Avenue and Westview Street, slinging a heavy duffel bag over his shoulder. On the corner, the faded red awning of the Las Americas Market advertised Latin groceries, lottery tickets and prepaid phone cards. The Franklin Field projects were visible just up ahead, a long row of apartment buildings, identical piles of faded bricks stacked three stories high.
This place was home now.
To his right, an abandoned gas station looked ready to fold in on itself. The neighboring lot to the station was just a deep pit of rubble, a thin layer of snow covering the remains of a building that had long ago burnt down there.
This place did not feel like home.
Four teenage boys stood outside at the edge of the projects, one white, one Asian, two black – all of them hidden deep within oversized winter jackets.
“So she got this tattoo on her arm,” the Asian kid said. “Three of them Chinese symbols, right? And she says, ‘You know what this means?’ Like ‘cause I’m Asian I can read fuckin’ Chinese!” The four of them burst out laughing, but their laughs trailed off into silence when they spotted Diego approaching. They stared at him, four pairs of aggressive eyes. He met their collective stare as he moved past. They said nothing. Just dropped their eyes. His two hundred forty pound, six foot five frame tended to do that to people.
“So I tell her I dunno,” the kid continued as Diego moved away. “She tells me it means, ‘Die Without Regrets.’ All serious. So I'm like, ‘Shit, then I'm gonna have to get your number.’”
Outside his uncle’s building, Diego looked up at three stories of dirty windows and rusted metal balconies. The building would have made a good jail.
An emaciated white cat emerged from the large park which ran along the street opposite the apartments and trotted towards Diego. Filth matted the unfortunate animal's fur. Its right eye was severely infected, red and swollen, oozing from both corners. The cat wobbled closer, its bony legs unsteady atop the crust covering the shallow snow.
“Hey, little man,” Diego said, squatting to reach its level. The cat meowed, young and desperate, rolled over onto its back, giving him its belly as it meowed three more times in quick succession.
“What’re you, a dog?” he murmured. He rubbed the cat’s stomach, felt the clear outline of its ribs through its cold, damp fur. He thought of his own cat that he’d had to leave with the Reynolds back in Iowa. He hoped Duncan wasn’t missing him as badly as he was missing Duncan.
Diego headed for the front door and the cat scurried up ahead of him, cutting back and forth in front of his feet, mewling one long continuous meow. He squatted again and scratched behind its ears, smiling as it pressed the top of its bony head into the palm of his outstretched hand.
“I will see you later, sir,” he said, taking out the key that his uncle had mailed him. “Promise.”
* * *
His uncle Carlos lived on the third floor, apartment 14. Diego found a note on the kitchen table.
‘Hope you made it in alright. I'll be home around ten. You’re in Miguel’s room. – Uncle Carlos’
The apartment was a cramped two bedroom. The kitchen, so dirty that Diego suspected he might find plants sprouting in the sink, was really just an alcove off to one side of the living room. The green corduroy couch was patched with duct tape, set back four feet from an ancient twenty-two inch tube television. The dusty blinds on the windows were missing half of their white plastic slats. Gone to a better place.
Diego stepped into the bathroom and stared at himself through the dried splatters of shaving cream on the mirror. His shaggy brown hair was two months overdue for a cut. His blue eyes were soft, but the rest of him was hard, all angles and lengths of flat, dense muscle.
That familiar tightness in his chest, a frequent visitor since his mother's death, was back again, forcing his breath to come quick and shallow. Moisture threatened to flood his eyes. He blinked it back, trying to just keep it together, still staring at his reflection. He slowed his breathing back down. Deep breaths.
A Selena Gomez poster was taped up above the bed in his cousin Miguel’s room. Clothing and fast food wrappers littered the floor. The air smelled of terminally ill underpants.
Diego tossed his duffel bag onto the bed and sat beside it. He'd have to just sleep on the couch. The two of them could not live together in this closet of a room. Not a chance. He thought about his first day at his new school on Monday, and if Uncle Carlos was really okay with him moving in, and then he had to just shut the thinking down, just sit and breathe and not think about goddamn anything or else his head was going to spin right off the top of his neck.
Underneath his cousin’s particle board desk, a balled up Burger King wrapper shifted. By itself? No. A rat revealed itself, nudging the wrapper with its nose once more. The plump rodent stood frozen, staring up at Diego, its fur glistening with slime.
Diego retrieved a nickel from his pocket and held it loosely between his left thumb and pointer finger. The rat darted for a corner of the room, for a small ragged hole in the floor there. Diego flicked his wrist and the coin sliced through the air with an audible hiss. The rat spun sideways from the coin’s impact, coming to rest on its back, its right front paw twitching. The nickel embedded in the plaster just behind the rat's head, having neatly bisected its brain. A single drop of blood fell from the rat's nose and hit the ground as Diego stood.
Jabiri stood just inside the front door. From the outside, this brownstone had looked like all the rest of them lined up on Commonwealth Avenue, but the interior was something else entirely. Jabari supposed the owners of the building would have referred to the room he waited in as an entryway, or something fancy like a ‘vestibule’, but the marble floors and towering ceiling made it feel more like a cavern. The spiral staircase in front of him extended up so high that he half expected to find a servant at the base of the stairs, handing out oxygen masks.
One servant, a middle-aged Asian man, had already let him in without a word and scurried off into the shadows, presumably to retrieve Mister Winters. A large Norman Rockwell painting was displayed just inside the front door, depicting a class of young students seated at their desks and listening to their teacher with rapt attention. He stepped close enough to the painting to lose himself in the fine detail of the individual brush strokes. Jabiri, who had been inside many opulent homes such as this one in the past two years, knew better than to wonder if the painting was genuine. The real question was if it was the Winters’ only Rockwell, or if it was part of a collection. If there was a collection, chances were they'd be selling off a few pieces of it in order to fund the second half of the elderly couple's donation.
The servant reappeared at the far end of a long corridor leading back behind the staircase and beckoned for Jabiri to join him. Mister Winters himself waited back there with him, holding open the door of an elevator with the worn end of his wooden cane.
“Mister Massaquoi, is it? So good of you to come,” he said. Jabiri didn’t bother correcting the old man's butcher job pronunciation of his last name. He just eyed the withered husk of a man. The man's mouth hung open a lopsided crack. The insubstantial layer of thin white hair on his head was a dusting of snow on the verge of melting.
“No problem,” Jabiri said. The servant pushed the button for the fourth floor and the ancient elevator shuddered and rose.
“I must be honest, when our dear friend Meredith informed us of the service you provide, I thought she was most likely being swindled in some manner. Or had simply gone mad. The idea that a failing liver could just recover –“
“People tend to be skeptical,” Jabiri said.
“Of course. Meredith kept telling me that she’d been blessed by God, but I’m not a particularly religious man myself-“
“God's got nothing to do with this.”
“Don’t bother trying to convince Meredith of that,” Winters said, his smile revealing yellowed dentures. “In any case, I could see that her jaundice was gone with my own two eyes, and her energy had returned as well. The woman is back playing tennis at the club again! She hasn’t done that in ten years!”
“I’m glad she's doing well.”
“Indeed she is. I must ask though, if you don't consider yourself to be a faith healer, then how do you explain-”
“I don't,” Jabiri said. “If you need to have faith in something, have faith in me. Or have faith in Meredith still walking around when she should be gone.”
The elevator opened and Winters held its door open with his cane, staring Jabiri dead in the eye. Jabiri met his gaze. Waited.
“Very well,” Winters said finally, lurching forward down a hallway lit only by the scant light passing through a grimy stained glass window above them. The servant opened a door to their left. Inside, Winters' wife lay asleep on a canopy bed, her atrophied body insubstantial beneath the avalanche of blankets covering it.
“She doesn’t wake up very often anymore,” Winters murmured, moving forward to peer down at her. Jabiri did the same. The woman’s face was pale to the point of translucence, skin stretched taut over her cheekbones.
“Before I do this,” Jabiri said. “I need to make sure you're clear on completing the rest of your donation.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Yeah. It is.”
“And how exactly did you decide how much a life should be worth?”
“You a businessman, Mister Winters?” Jabiri asked.
“So I assume you're familiar with the concept of supply and demand?”
“You know anyone else who can cure terminal illnesses?”
“Alright, point taken.”
“If you're unhappy with the cost, I'm happy to refund the first two million.”
“No, no. Carry on,” Winters muttered.
“The rest of it's due in two weeks. One million, six hundred thousand.”
“You’ll get your money.”
Jabiri kneeled by the bed and touched the woman’s damp forehead with two fingers of his right hand.
“She has heart disease,” Winters explained. “Our doctor says her body’s not receiving enough oxygen anymore. But she’s too weak for a transplant.”
Jabiri nodded, but the information was unnecessary. With a moment’s concentration, he felt the imperfections inside the woman’s body and formed his own diagnosis. His mind identified those imperfections as a nose detects smells. Each imperfection a distinctive entity, but the mass of them blending together into one unique combination.
He felt a bedsore festering on the back of her right thigh. Ligaments in her left knee that had never healed correctly after an injury years past. A cavity rotting deep into the center of her one remaining molar. He felt these problems and more, but her failing heart was a beacon at the center of it all. He focused his mind there, on the clogged arteries and the thickening wall and the stagnant blood flow and he pushed.
The act of it, the push itself, was not something that Jabiri imagined he would ever understand, but its effects were self evident. In the case of a cut and bleeding arm, the push caused injured skin to knit back together and mend cleanly within seconds. Applied to a sprained ankle, the push shrank swelling flesh and removed the stiffness of the joint in moments.
Jabiri could not see the effects of the push on this woman’s heart with his eyes, but the imperfection of the diseased organ in his mind rapidly diminished in intensity. Within moments, it was gone.
“I’m done,” Jabiri said as he stood back up. He staggered a bit with dizziness. His own flesh had gone pale. Black spots danced a jig on his pupils. A headache took shape behind his sinuses and began a slow build toward what he knew would be a vicious retribution.
“You’re done?” Winters asked.
“How do I know you even did anything?”
Jabiri just motioned to the woman. Her eyes were open and a healthy pink tone had flushed out the paleness from her skin.
“Herb?” she asked. “Who’s this?”