May 19, 2008
By Zoe Wilkins, Kittery Point, ME

Every true city-dweller understands the transient beauty of a cherry tree in the midst of a full and exuberant bloom, as among the smog and steel of the concrete maze there is little that is natural and breathing. It was the scent of these newly flourishing cherry trees, which brought a smile to Sofia's face as she strolled home. The fragrance hung heavily in the air around the frivolous blossoms that dangled carelessly from young green branches, Sofia tripped through the lush carpet of fallen petals strewn across the cracked pavement.

Reluctantly, she forced herself away from the vivacious perfume, and towards the musty interior of a cramped store jammed with over-ripe fruits and superfluous stacks of exotic Indian spices. Quickly collecting the few things she needed, Sofia paid the hawk-eyed clerk, who offered her a small, curt smile, which wrinkled his copper-colored skin like tissue paper. As she swung the cumbersome glass door open, and stepped back into the sunshine, a jumble of rancorous voices reached her ears and she frowned, searching for the disturbance. A group of ungainly boys had quickly formed a tight circle around a single, fearfully submissive victim, who twisted his hands together tightly, and bit down on his peculiarly rosy bottom lip. Boisterous jeers and savage insults rained down upon him from all sides as he tried, with every fiber of his lean, hunched body, to hold back the choking sob growing in his dry throat.

Sofia watched, while a crease of disapproval rippled across her brow, but there was nothing she could do to deter the insatiable predators from devouring their hapless prey. All around her, faceless people shuffled quickly past them, pretending not to notice the boys and their game, their heads down and their hands shoved stubbornly into worn pockets, ignoring the hatefully echoing voices along with the cordial aroma of the cherry blossoms.

Under her breath, Sofia muttered forlornly to herself, "It's a damn shame."
"Indeed it is." came a wheezing voice from somewhere just behind her left shoulder. With the small start of a child who has been caught doing something they ought not to do, she whipped around to see a crumpled old man sitting cross-legged on a grubby piece of cardboard, leaning against the yellowing brick wall behind him. He was scrutinizing the scene with restrained curiosity, and a hint of repulsion shown in the curl of his pale, chapped lips. "I see them here often, making trouble. They pick targets; the stragglers who walk home alone, the small boys with scrawny arms and wide eyes." He told her in an even, matter-of-fact tone. Sofia watched him with wary incredulity and just then, as if to substantiate his statement, one of the heftiest boys took a sharp swing at their charge with a tightly coiled fist, burying it into his fleshy stomach and causing him to double over involuntarily. The gang let forth an exaggerated laugh, snickering as they watched the boy bent weakly, gasping for air and silently attempting to summon forth some desperately needed resilience. Sofia opened her mouth, with the intention of asking the venerable old man why, but it seemed he understood before she had the chance to speak, as he finally turned his gaze to her, and began staring out at her through a pair of watery blue eyes, hooded by the sagging skin which propagated the idea of a worldly knowledge, "No man can think clearly when his fists are clenched," he proclaimed solemnly and with a certain air of sagacity, which seemed in sharp contrast with his coarse accent and grizzly, dilapidated features. He continued to stare at her, but there was no expectancy in his placid expression, he was not waiting for Sofia's reply, he was observing the effect of his words as they sunk in deeply.

However, her thoughts were interrupted by a nauseating crack, followed instantly by a stirring yelp which cut through the incessant hum of traffic, and sent a tremulous chill down the back of Sofia's neck. She turned, breathless, to the sound of manic laughter, and the slap of sneakers on concrete. The gang had already ducked out of sight before she realized that they had left their target dazed, on the warm concrete. Her breath caught in the back of her throat, and she bolted towards his sprawled figure, which lay crumpled like a discarded toy. His face was streaked with tears, his nose was running freely and his eyes were glistening, wide and dark. Sofia felt the faint trembling of his clammy hands as she hoisted him from the ground, blood dripped sluggishly from the back of his head, speckling the pavement.

Outside the window, the moon shone bright and startlingly yellow, but all Sofia could see was the dead stare in the boy's eyes, and the blood that had trickled down his skull as they'd hoisted him into the ambulance, the wail of the siren ricocheted through her mind. Her eyes were streaming and the blood pounding through her head made it impossible for her to stand without a violent swaying similar to that of seasickness.

The hostile glare of the fluorescent lighting draped the waiting room in a cold glow, and it elongated the steady shadow of the nurse pacing down the hall towards her. "You can go and see him now, if you'd like." She smiled mildly at Sofia as she spoke, a glimmer of poorly concealed pity in her almond eyes. Without a word they made their way down the deserted hallway, Sofia concentrating all of the energy she could muster into staying upright, and fighting the engulfing dizziness forcing her to the floor. When they reached the door, the pitying nurse opened the door and stood aside, filling the hall with the abrasive scent of disinfectant and anesthesia.
He was sprawled on a plastic-coated, bleach white cot, with a putrid blue blanket draped over his motionless form, his scarred face wrapped in gauze, and stained an unnerving shade of brown. Sofia said nothing; she only stared in stark, empty silence at his slack mouth and heaving chest. She felt the bleary prick of tears though she wasn't sure why. She had never known this boy, she would never see him again; she'd just been in the right place, at the right time. Yet, she could not convince herself to stop the flow of tears that rolled slowly down her flushed cheeks. He was so beautiful, despite the scars and needles enshrouding his torpid frame. It was only then that she understood how fleeting life could be, how it comes and goes like the blossoms of a cherry tree.

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