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The air was sharp with the biting sensation of cold; the ground wet. A light fog crowded the streetlights of the dark city. All of the moisture seemed to relieve the dense suburban area of the foul smells it had once harbored. During the summer, the city was suffocating. With the closeness of everything leaving little room to move around and the beating sun above, I often felt like an ant under a magnifying glass at the mercy of the almighty. The season of fall was my relief from the heat that drained, burned, and devoured all that dared wander outside. The chilly air that whipped lightly at my face was refreshing and made me grin like a madman. What was I grinning at? My current job was horrendously boring and bringing in minimal income. Besides my personal problems of trying to survive in this modern jungle-wasteland, I was well aware that all of my friends and family were currently hosting parties underground with maggots. They didn’t even consider inviting me. Who wouldn’t readily accept an invitation to that exclusive party six feet under? That lovely party devoid of thought, worry, stress, emotion, and sensation. Sensation. That’s why I was grinning like the fool who couldn’t help but be amused at the wit of his own joke. The dead know nothing of sensation anymore for they feel nothing. I was grinning because I could feel something. I could feel the air and the cold and the moisture and the sensation of living that I loved. Life might be difficult but it is the little things that keep me trudging through the muck with that silly little smirk that rightfully belongs to the living.
As I walked along the damp sidewalk my mind began to wander. I was mesmerized by the clouds of steam that emerged from below my eyes every few seconds only to evaporate into nonexistence. The blackness of the night clung to my clothes and embraced everything I saw. Only the cutting beams of the streetlights could tear away the embrace of the night. As I walked under them I felt naked and vulnerable. I decided to avoid the lights by walking on the extreme of the sidewalk that touched the buildings. I enjoyed the dark. It was comforting.
I was not thinking of anything in particular at the moment that I spotted it but it immediately demanded my attention. There was what appeared to be a large stone nestled in a corner created by a trashcan and a wall on the edge of the sidewalk. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself. My curiosity was aroused and I proceeded at a slower pace. Through the murky darkness of the night it was difficult to decipher details. But as I approached the object, I began to notice that it consisted of several shades of grey and had some almost moss-like material on top of it. Surely this was a strange sight. I shuffled closer to the object, feeling the mounting anticipation in the growing mystery and suspense of it all. I was within a few feet of the object and began to lower my head and squint my eyes to figure out what exactly the thing was. Suddenly the object stirred. As it shifted and changed form before my eyes I had to suppress the urge to scream. It helped that all the air in my lungs were held hostage by my paralyzed body. The amorphous grey object elongated upward and extended towards me. Suddenly, a gruff voice cut through the silence of the empty street.
“Spare some coin, stranger?”
With the familiarity of a human voice casting me closer to reality, the shape instantly took the form of a huddled old man in all his gloriously filthy detail.
“Uhh, no”, I said, finally getting control over my lungs.
“C’mon man. It’s freezing out here and I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t have anything to give you.” I began to take small steps away from the pathetic old man.
“… No. I’m sorry”, I repeated.
“I only need 50 cents more to get one o’ them burgers down the street” he said feebly. “Help anotha man out... Please…” I could see his chin tremble under his matted grey beard.
There was change in my pocket; about 78 cents from what I used to purchase the Chapstick, currently in my coat, earlier that day. I had money to give him. Money that I would find little use of. Money that could save this man’s life. But I didn’t want to give it to him. Was he worth it? How could the world possibly benefit from me giving this man money that he didn’t earn? Wouldn’t we all be better off if his old heart stopped beating and the hand that it fed stopped begging passerby for something that THEY had earned by contributing to society? I pondered these questions and they all lead me back to the conclusion that this man deserved no handouts. Whether he was in this situation because of his own mistakes or from some horrible act of fate it did not matter. He was worthless to me. Surely not worth the 78 cents in my pocket.
“No”, I said with added bluntness. “I cannot help you.” I began to walk away.
The old man mumbled something followed by a soft whimper like that of a wounded puppy. He was crying.
“How dare you!” I said as I stepped back towards him, leaning in a threatening way. I was furious. "How dare you make me feel bad for not giving you that which is rightfully mine! How dare you cry in front of me to gain my sympathy. You can't just expect live on handouts when all you have to offer is tears."
The man looked up, directly into my face, and our eyes locked. His eyes were dark brown and pierced like a knife deep into my soul. They shone absurdly bright in that dark corner of the world. I realized that it was the reflection of the streetlights off of his watery eyes. A single tear broke free from the inside of his right eye and slithered down his dirty face only to disappear within the forest of his beard. I knew at that moment that he wasn’t looking for sympathy. I could see that this man was full of pride. He only gave up what little he could spare to ask people for another day of life. He had received his invitation to that party under the ground a while back but wasn’t quite ready to accept it; wasn’t ready to stop living. In that moment I saw myself in the filthy face before me. I was now the one on the sidewalk asking for money; begging the good Samaritans of the world for a few more precious minutes of life. Then I was back in my own body and in my suit and slacks. This man was alone just like I was. The cruel world that we both inhabited had taken those things that we loved from us and left us with only the sensation of living that we both thrived on. Against my better judgment I reached into my pocket and held out my hand with the change in it.
“I’m sorry”, I said. “I overreacted.”
The man glanced at my hand, back at my face, then back at my hand before holding out his shaking, dusty fingers to accept my offering.
“Thank you”, said the man through a cracking voice and a fresh volley of tears. “God bless. GOD BLESS!”
I relinquished a forced smile, looked the man in his piercing eyes, nodded, and that was it. I left him there. Left him to once again be engulfed by the night. I left him to the mercy of the harsh world he and I both inhabit but in separate realities.
The smile that I had had earlier slowly crept back as I began to embrace the sensation of the cold again. The fact that I wasn’t alone in my loneliness made me feel like I actually had someone in this life to relate all my problems to. There are so many people in this world that are alone. It was a comforting thought.
As these thoughts ran through my mind about the world and everyone being connected and disconnected at the same time something crashed into my right cheek and jarred my whole head. My neck twisted against its will and my body followed. I was on the ground now with the metallic taste of blood in my mouth. I turned my head towards the towering buildings on my right only to have my vision obscured by a dark, hulking figure blocking the way to a pitch-black alley.
“Give me your wallet! Don’t make me hit you again fool! Give me your goddamn wallet!”
Preferring the old man’s way of handling domestic money transfer, I simply mumbled something about his mother and spat out some blood. My head was ringing and I was in no mood to deal with a scumbag like this.
“Give me your wallet before I kill you!” the figure said as he delivered a blow to my ribs from a steel-toed boot. I tipped over onto my back with the wind knocked out of me. Gasping for breath, I rocked back and forth on the ground holding the side that he had kicked. The man got on top of me, grabbed my throat and part of my face with his left hand and breathed his foul tobacco breath on me. The man screamed, “Can you hear me man? I’m not kidding!” The clouds of smoke erupting from his mouth and the darkness surrounding us put the man in a fog that left little room for recognition. For all I knew I was dealing with a bear; a big, mean bear. I coughed and gasped through the man’s giant clammy fingers.
“You son-of-a... I’ll teach you to cooperate.”
Something clicked as a silvery-gold flash caught my eye. The flash was there and gone before I knew what was happening and was almost immediately replaced by an intense pain in my side. It was as if the biting cold had finally bitten through my clothes and skin and was driving further into my body until it caught my soul. My mind exploded with panic as the man’s blade drove deeper into my side. My whole body tightened up and I wanted with all of my being, all of the air in my lungs, all of the thoughts in my head, and all of the power of god to get rid of the intruder. The icy cold of the blade was replaced by a sudden and extreme burning sensation. I screamed through the hand that constantly gripped tighter on my throat and the sound that came was so inhuman that it surely couldn’t have been mine. My body trembled, hands holding tightly to the man’s clothes, wanting to fight but unable to move. My eyes closed, the man mumbled something about my mother and I faded into the night.
There was a dull siren off in the distance and I slowly opened my eyes to see red and white lights cut through the blackness above me. My eyes fell closed again and left me in the dark. This happened several times and each with a new experience like a brand new life.
“Just let him rest for now and he should be on his feet again by tomorrow.”
“Yes doctor. Do you want me to change his IV?”
“Please. And make sure to add those antibiotics. Who knows what was on that knife.”
My mind was clouded with distant voices, dull pain, and the color red. As I began to realize my own existence once again I began to open my eyes but only to shut them again very quickly, turning my head. The world was much brighter than when I had left it. As I got accustomed to the intense light I began to take in more of my surroundings. Details blossomed out of thin air as if emerging from a dense fog. I was on a bed in a very clean, very white room. I was in the hospital. There was a woman in light blue scrubs at my side attending to a bag of clear liquid on a hook by my bed. She must know what’s going on.
“Wh… what happened?” I mumbled.
“Well hey! Look who’s finally awake! I was curious when you would wake up cause you’d been out nearly all night and most of today.”
I gave her a puzzled look that perfectly matched how I was feeling. I was too exhausted to hide my emotions.
“You were attacked by a local miscreant late last night. He stabbed you right between your ribs on your left side there. You blacked out and as the menace ran off a witness used a pay-phone to call an ambulance for ya. If it wasn’t for him you’d probably have been discovered cold as death on that sidewalk this morning. You’ve got a lot to be thankful for, my friend.”
“I… I was attacked?” I cringed as a burst of pain erupted from my side.
“Don’t move too much or you’ll disturb the stitches. You just rest now and the doctor said we’ll have you on your feet by tomorrow.” She finished messing with the bag and began to walk out of the room.
“Wait”, I said with more energy than I thought I had. “Who called the ambulance?”
The woman smiled, “The EMTs that brought you in said that there was an old man putting pressure on your side when they arrived. They didn’t have time to get his name because you were in critical condition and the man scurried off almost as soon as they arrived. That anonymous man just might be the reason you’re still here today. But don’t take my word for it.” She then stepped out the door and disappeared down the hall.
A man? What man? My mind was cloudy but the events of the previous night began to come back to me. I was speechless. That old man had used the money I had just given him for food to use the pay-phone. That old man had saved my life, possibly at the cost of his. The gravity of it all hit me like a freight train. I was alive and I wouldn’t have been if that man hadn’t been there to help. My vision became blurred as I squinted through tears. My bottom lip trembled uncontrollably and my face pinched towards the center as the warm liquid fell off my cheeks and onto the white hospital apron. How could I have ever thought that man to be worthless? If anything he was more worthy of life than I was.