A Breath of Fresh Air

February 2, 2017

Mac emerged abruptly from Grand Central Station, running one hand smoothly through his wind-blown hair.

“Wow, we sure picked a good day to go, didn’t we,” Mac’s friend Sirus said, using his hand as a visor to glance around in the bright afternoon sun. They had arrived by train from New Brunswick.

New York City’s air hung heavy with the combined aroma of charred hot-dogs, cigarette smoke, and car exhaust. Huge advertisements danced across giant screens on the sides of skyscrapers as people walked, jogged, biked, and chatted over the noise of the city. Women in high heels clacked down the sidewalk, their flowy, modern clothing a statement of summer, while toddlers stumbled over themselves trying to keep up with the pace of their parents’ long strides.

The scene struck a nostalgic chord with Mac, who remembered visiting the city often as a young kid. He could remember times when he and his mischievous older brother, Julian, would hide under the tables at fancy restaurants and make raucous noises to scare the other customers (which eventually would get their family kicked out). Mac missed Julian deeply. He could also recall the time Julian was forced to go to a home for troubled teens as a fifteen-year-old, when Mac was just five. Mac didn’t wish to recall that memory.

These thoughts strolled through Mac’s head as he and his friends Nick and Sirus headed towards a park to relax. As he was taking in the scene, Mac noticed a middle-aged homeless man resting on his side. The man’s tired eyes were widely set and his brows were low, framing his face in resigned melancholy. His face resembled that of an old lion-- wild, but understanding. Come to think of it, the man looked a lot like an older Julian. Julian would be, what, thirty-five now? But this man looked at least fifty.

“Mac, you good?” Nick asked him suddenly, making him jump. Nick clasped his arm as if he were a dawdling toddler.

“Yeah,” Mac mumbled spacely, his gaze turning involuntarily back to the homeless man, who stared into the horizon with a weary, unfathomable expression. Could it be him?

At the park, young city-goers slept in the shade of tall beech trees in the 78-degree heat with nothing on but shorts or a swimsuit, digging their bare feet into the cool soil. Mac felt vaguely unsettled when he glanced at a happy family eating lunch on handmade quilts, the two young children frolicking joyously around the picnic. It brought up unresolved feelings of vulnerability regarding Mac’s own childhood. He could barely remember the last time his whole family ate a meal together, and ever since his parents passed away, he hadn’t looked back on that aspect of his life. Julian was all he had left. The image of the homeless man flickered through his thoughts.

Mac watched his friends as they did cartwheels and Nick doubled over laughing from something Sirus said. He was getting himself down for no reason; he simply had to go to the homeless man and ask him himself!
“I’ll be right back. I think I found my brother!” He called to his friends.

“What?” Sirus replied across the field. But Mac was already gone, sprinting down the field and towards the street.

Nick and Sirus exchanged nervous glances before getting up after him. They were well aware of Mac’s ambitions about finding his brother. They had been there in full support when Mac became utterly convinced that a bartender at a Jersey shore café was Julian, and saw the pain it caused him afterwards. They weren’t about to watch that play out again.

Mac bolted back to the street crossing. He squeezed between cars, ignoring the blaring horns. He tore his way through crowds like a fanatic in a mosh pit until, at last, he saw the man sitting in the same place. A wave of relief washed over him.

“Is your name Julian Pavlat?” He asked, his eyes searching the man’s chaotically.

The man shook his head nonchalantly. A gust of wind blew by.

“My name’s Ryker Malone.”


Mac felt crushed. He had been so sure about this man. But he had been devastatingly wrong, and to his own fault he felt the sorrow taking hold of him like a vine around his heart. He was about to give up and leave when he realized it would be rude not to give the guy some money. But as he did so a small piece of paper escaped from his jean pocket and fluttered onto the pavement, landing next to the homeless man. It was a picture of Julian as a boy holding Mac as a baby on his lap, a keepsake of Mac’s.

Ryker picked up the photo swiftly, his solemn expression softening slightly as he gazed at it. His expression turned to glowing familiarity as the new and the old crystallized in his mind.

“Where did you find this?” Ryker asked pugnaciously. Mac shook his head, anxiously searching for words.

“Wait, you’re not, you can’t be--” His dark green eyes locked with Mac’s, and Mac could read that old expression-- one of dawning excitement-- like a book.

“Mac. I’m Mac,” He uttered, his heart thumping in his chest like a metronome.

“Is that really you?” The man quaked, pushing himself up off the ground.

Suddenly face-to-face, Mac had the chance to study his brother’s aging features. There were tan wrinkles around his mouth-- tokens from years of struggle and suffering. And then, without pause, he stood in a passionate embrace with his brother, inhaling the dull musk of cigarette smoke and dirt.

Outside of them, the commotion dulled to a soft murmur. Everything was peaceful, and lost ambitions resurfaced effortlessly. They were home.

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