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By , Irvine, CA
For now, Carl lies still on his belly, his head twisted barely sideways, so he can breathe. The scratchy hotel linens are pulled over his head: he did not have the energy to turn the lights off, or change into his nightclothes, or take off his shoes. He lies this way for hours, feeling too tired to move and too tired to fall asleep. Because he is wondering, for now, if the things that brought him here--if it had all been a dream.
Things feel hardly less surreal the next morning. Snow falls gently outside the big purple windows of his hotel room: his room is on the thirty-second story. In Richey, where he is from, where he has been his whole life, and which he has never left, there are no buildings more than ten stories high, and here he is looking dizzyingly down to taxicabs that are no bigger than yellow sprinkles on a cupcake, moving steadily down the sixteen lanes below.
His room smells like cigarettes, and the toilet he used last night is still flushing--the chain is stuck. These days, darkness has become a thing able to paralyze Carl, if he isn't careful, and that's what it had felt like, in the grimy lobby of the hotel, like steadily his veins were turning to stone. The light, which he had kept on all night, had dozed off to and woken up to, is now flickering. Carl steps into the gauzy grey glow of the clouds, and walks to the switch and turns it off.
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It's better on the street, because there are people all around him: slurping coffee, talking into cell phones, breathing puffs of steam into the frozen air. "...tell her...won't have...can't be...should be running..." A laugh. And it is Raymond's voice, warm and crackly under his skin, so he walks toward it, unthinking. And asks the pretty blonde woman who she is talking to, because he thinks it might be a friend of his. But she crosses the street, stiffening and pretending not to hear. If he follows her, she has a can of mace in her purse.
And so it is, all the way to the Starbucks on Wayne and 16th. Raymond's eyes, in a homeless man's pleading face. Raymond’s hand, attached to a man in a grey suit, pressed against Carl's chest, when he steps into the crosswalk and there is a car, that turns, the driver with a phone pressed to his head. The hand is warm and veiny and big, and he follows it around, until the grey suit's head says, "Look kid I have to get to work I see you're new in town just be more careful okay?"
=====
He is half an hour late. But Avery is patient. He jumps up and runs to Carl when he walks through the door, the moist coffee-smelling air fogging up his glasses, so the details are lost to him. But the man that drapes an arm around him, has a face that looks like a snake's. Carl, shivering, shakes him off: there is a hungry look in the man's yellowed eyes, and he smells like unwashed desperation.
Avery offers to buy him anything he wants, off the menu. "And don't be shy about picking something expensive, or more than one thing because I know you have traveled two thousand miles to get here and you must be very hungry and you remind me of my son you're like a son to me."
"Where's Raymond?"
"He's resting. I'll take you to him tonight." Between them, there hangs silence for a while. And then, a question. "The two of you must have been good friends. I've read about you everywhere. I've seen your videos." Avery didn't like silences, and sitting in front of him was a story: the kind of tale that could break you down and give you the warm fuzzies all over. A real tear-jerker they would call it at the Tribune, where he didn't work anymore, where he hadn't worked in a year, where if he worked he wouldn't have to be living in a no-AC Bayview attic, cutting cobwebs eating food stamps waiting for life to start up again.
"Raymond was the only real friend I ever had." (And these used to be real words once, but he had said them so many times they weren't true anymore.) "He worked an AM PM with me for a summer. When we got new shipments the two of us would race each other for the little boxes so restocking got done in less than half the time and sometimes people would come in after seven (which was when we were supposed to close) and find the two of us just sitting there laughing and they would say to us 'It's eight.' Or 'It's nine.' And we would have no idea, and it would be good for them of course because they needed something, and my folks would get so mad, but they were just pretending because I think they were happy to see me happy like I was because I never had friends really, not before then."
Avery checked his watch.
Carl wanted to kick something. Because he was sitting so close to this man he could hear the thrumming of his heart, and feel the steam rising off the moist of his wrist. But he felt as lonely next to him as he had on the freezing Greyhound here, as he had in the bluish screenlight of his room, for years as the voices argued below, waiting to grow up.
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In the newspapers that picked up the story, it would be stated that Raymond and Carl were childhood friends. In the version that appeared in the 2007 edition of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, it would be written that, at Richey General, where Carl had been born, the two had had adjoining bassinets (they were early-borns, bless their greenish hearts, born on the same day like twins). It would be written that the nurses remembered them pressing their tiny palms to the glass wall that seperated them, trying to reach out and touch hand to hand.
Really, Raymond was on the run. He was willing to work cheap, and Carl's father had broken his ankle. "What do you want me to do?" Raymond had asked him on his first day at work.
"Dissapear," Carl had answered honestly. Because Raymond looked like everything that had been wrong about high school for Carl, and his arrival at the AM PM meant the end of everything that had been right about being nineteen years old, and free for the first time in his life. "But if that's not an option right now, there's some dried rat droppings on the floor of the freezer aisle that I've been too lazy to deal with. Here's a mop."
His heart throbbing as he said it, because Raymond was bigger than him, and he would have never dared anything like this in high school, word spread quick and you had to be careful. Watching him carefully, cruelly, as he bent down with the scrubbing brush and pan, and worked, his face a mask. Was he scared?
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It was hard, the next morning, for Carl to look at him. I'm not a bad person, he wanted to say. I'm not cruel. Its just that Richard Stevenson is my father, and there is a way people look at me because that is the case, and when I was in ninth grade, and Louis Platt smashed my face with a brick, the mother with a baby across the street looked at me and walked right on, because I was a Stevenson, and I had just gotten what was coming to me, and for four years after that people didn't talk to me unless they had to, and I've gotten by okay just want to be left alone. But you're not from town are you maybe we could be friends.
"I'm sorry about yesterday," was what he actually said. "I was in a crummy mood. I'll clean the rat poop today. You want to fill the donut rack?" He smiled. Raymond smiled. To end the awkward moment between them, Carl clapped him on the back.
Raymond swore, and it was then Carl noticed the blood dripping out from the hem of his t-shirt. Carl ran to the emergency supply cabinet in the back of the shop, but by the time he had come back, Raymond was gone.
======
Raymond was on the run. Carl had hit an old bruise of his. "They only kept me alive because if I made it to eighteen, they'd get a fifth of my inheritance." Before Carl could ask: "It's not a huge amount of money. But it's everything my parents had."
"Why'd they hit you?"
He shrugged. "I asked him once, and he said 'For fun' But then I did this," he rolled up his sleeve. "And then it became more of a preventative measure."
Like worms, the skin on his forearm was covered with lines, twisting every which way and that. "If I died, they wouldn't get a cent. And it made me happy, knowing I could do that to them."
"But it takes strength to take the plunge. And you don't have control over anything when you're black and blue and you've been chained to the wall, and you're so hungry, you could kiss her when she walks in with the food. Because she was the one who made the bleeding go away."
What did you call someone who you got along with and felt awful for and worried about and took care of and got taken care of by out of necessity without a choice? You chose your friends, you were born into your family, but Raymond was something else. There was never a chance for it, to be any other way.
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There are some losses you get over. Carl understands this. There are some losses that bruise you, but their sting eventually goes away. But this is not even a loss: Carl cannot think of it this way. There was life before that one day and there was life for those thirty miraculous days.
And he knew, as he was led down the back alleys, past the leering crack dealers through the grey, icy wind. And he knew, as he was introduced to Avery's wife who had six children and four of them were Avery's and did he know what this meant to them what a ten thousand dollar reward would do? He knew, he knew what waited for him.
And he decided that the choice was his to make.
======
It's been two years. And you look like him, good enough. I'll give you a thousand dollars.
And you keep the other nine thousand?
The reward's for the finder. And well, I found you, didn't I?
======
The guy in front of him, was called Raymond Cooper. Or at least, when you called him Raymond Cooper, he faced you and smiled. And his hands were big and veiny and warm. And if the face wasn't what he had remembered it to be, and if the voice didn't get under your skin the way it used to it was because two years was a long time. And if Raymond was being paid a thousand dollars to be Carl's Raymond, it was because everybody had to make a living somehow, and who was Carl to judge how a man did it?
It got colder in Chicago than it ever had in Richey, and sometimes it felt like your nose was going to fall off, it was so cold here. In January, when it was coldest the ice on the lake got so cold and so dense that from a distance it looked blue. But things found a way to live, under the blue ice, and around the edges of the piles of snow everywhere. In the bitterest cold, even, you could see flecks of green, pushing their way out of the dark. And you could see the men and women, in black overcoats, fighting whole snowstorms to get to the work they didn't know why they did.
People managed, in this city--they got by. And Carl, slipping his fingers into Raymond-who-was-not-Raymond's veiny hand, understood that that was all you could hope for, most of the time.





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