complex - part one
Author's note: One of my favorite pieces I've written thus far.
good citizenA f e w guys nodded at me—I nodded back. Some of the force and I were on first-name terms. We kicked it every once in a while, but most of them were in their forties with kids and wives—not always both. These boys in blue—sometimes black—worked hard without so much as a 'thank you' told to them. Risking their lives for a city that didn't really care about them. Tragic.
The woman at the front desk called my name as I passed.
I cleared my throat as I went over. "Sup, Trudy."
She smiled. "How ya been, Jake? Haven't seen you here for a while."
"I thought that was good thing."
Trudy laughed. "Keeping out of trouble?"
"You know me. Trouble is my middle name."
She smiled. "Where ya headed?"
I shrugged. "To the next coffee shop I see, so not very far. Why?"
"Just." Her phone started blinking more than one light. "I guess I gotta get back to work."
"Well, don't work too hard." I smiled before leaving.
"Take care of yourself, Jake," she called.
I almost stopped, suddenly choking just a little. How many more people were going to tell me that? I suddenly couldn't get out of the station fast enough.
Stepping out into the honking and cussing drivers giving people the finger called L.A. was relief. The sun was blazing ahead as I made my way west, in search of some place that had a good cup of coffee.
It was about… I guessed ten a.m. (need to get me a watch) and the sidewalk was packed with shoppers and walkers while the street was jammed with angry drivers and sleep-deprived very late employees. Nothing beats L.A. in the morning.
A Starbucks came up just ahead. I stood at the corner, waiting for the lights to change when I noticed some little toddler boy crying with his mom. His little face was pink and tears leaked out while the mother—no doubt frustrated—tried juggling the baby girl and a bag full of I didn't know what in her arms, completely ignoring the kid.
Predictably, the kid started running down the sidewalk as the light changed. I zoomed through the crowd unnoticed as the boy reached the end of the sidewalk, not stopping as the oncoming traffic started moving. Pushing aside some fat suit talking into a phone, I managed to scoop the little kid up before a shiny black Hummer turned him into a cute little pancake.
And nobody saw a thing.
The frazzled mom must've noticed him missing because she was crying as I handed the still-crying kid back to her. She began suffocating him with kisses and 'don't do that ever again' stuff. As if he really wouldn't.
"Oh, thank you so much!" she cried, managing to hug me despite her load. Her blue eyes were watery, and she was practically trembling.
"Might I suggest a leash?" I did see twins in the park with a leash around their waist one time, their mom yapping away into a cell phone—no lie.
She smiled. "Thank you very much." She simultaneously continued to juggle the baby girl, what I realized were multiple bags, her emotional state, and the boy.
"Do you need help with that, ma'am?" Something about her made me want to ask instead of walk away. She looked like she could break apart any second. Poor woman.
She cleared her throat, fully composed now. "Oh, I'm heading home," she said loudly; the boy was still crying. "It's not that far."
I reached for the bags. "I can carry them if you like." A rule I try to abide by is never reach for the kid(s); that always freaks moms out.
"Would you?" She sounded relieved. "Is there a place you need to—wait. Don't you go to school?" Ay. I hated it when adults asked that. Like it was really their business.
"Well… if I were in school… I wouldn't have been able to catch your little boy."
Her grateful smile faltered only a little. "Okay. Thank you so very much… um…."
"Thank you, Jake." She quickly passed me the bags like they had leprosy and grabbed the little boy's hand. I walked behind her as she started talking. "So, if you don't go to school, what do you do?"
"I, uh, I work with the police."
"Really?" She sounded skeptical. Who wouldn't be?
"Really. It's like a vocational training program. They provide housing." The last two sentences were lies. Duh, right?
She turned. "You're not a butler or anything. You can walk next to me. I feel like I'm talking to myself." I quickly matched her pace. "So you're training to be a police officer?"
"That, or a probation officer," I lied. "Not sure yet."
"And your parents…?"
"Don't have any… well, I probably did, but I'm an orphan." No lies involved there.
"Oh, I'm sorry." She had that little oh, you poor thing tone that I was never really fond of.
"It's okay. The force is my family now." That's what Robert always said.
The mom nodded to herself. "Well, I think it's good that you have a positive influence in your life. Most kids like you—no offense—they end up in the streets, tangled up in gangs and dying for no reason, killing people along the way like they don't matter." Her voice had a hint of fury, and she sounded like she was trying to keep that down.
"That," I said, "is an excellent way of putting it. Couldn't have said it better myself."
She smiled at me. "How old are you?"
"Sixteen. I'm emancipated." That second part was a lie—if you actually cared by now.
"So, how do you support yourself?" she asked distantly.
I shrugged. "The police provide food and shelter through the program. I'm working on finding a part-time job or something." The first is a lie (no frickin' duh) and I probably should've been looking for a job instead of being the first superhero who was broke—not to mention a first class liar. Not setting a good example, am I?
"That's good. So how do you keep yourself busy?"
I shrugged again. "I dunno. I work with the program almost all the time."
She stopped in front of an apartment complex. That's also when I noticed the little boy had been tugging at my sweatshirt most of the way; at least he was quiet.
The mom smiled at him. "Kyle just turned four."
I smiled at the boy. "Cute little kid. Don't go running out into the street again," I told him. As if he understood me. Well, he was cute, and I couldn't help it. The baby girl was cute too, but she was asleep.
The mom noticed I was looking at her. "Clare's only two. She shouldn't be sleeping right now, or she'll never sleep tonight." She turned to me. "Wanna come inside?"
I raised an eyebrow. "Really? You'll let a sixteen-year-old boy you just met into your apartment?"
She rolled her eyes at me. "I'm a good judge of character. Plus, you saved my son. Not many sixteen-year-old kids would do that." She smiled before heading up the steps, Kyle right on her heels as I followed.
The lobby looked pretty basic. The mom (she hadn't told me her name, so that's how I thought of her) went to one of the little boxes and checked it—no mail today. She motioned for Kyle to stop playing with one of the fake plants and he followed her to the elevators. I gulped. Elevators.
It was small, and with all of us—and the bulk I was carrying—it was even smaller. I felt my face grow hot and I suddenly couldn't breathe normally.
The mom noticed. "Something wrong?"
I cleared my throat. "Not comfortable in small spaces. Sorry." Kyle started jumping, trying to reach the buttons, and I suddenly had a vision of him pushing the wrong button and the elevator car cables suddenly snapping and—
"No need to apologize." She smiled. "That used to freak me out too."
I watched Kyle warily. "How'd you get over it?" His little fingers grazed the stop—
"I thought of an open field. Or I imagined freezing to death. Sometimes it made me like the coziness, know what I mean? I tricked myself into wanting the small spaces."
"That's pretty smart. Are you a psychiatrist or something?" Kyle got bored of the buttons; I breathed a sigh of relief, then frowned because I noticed the mom had been watching me watch Kyle.
She laughed. "Nah. I just helped myself." The elevator stopped and the doors opened—I was the first one out. The mom probably laughed at me again, only quieter. I followed her to door 4C as she unlocked it.
Like the lobby, the apartment was, well, basic. A small TV and an evergreen couch dominated most of the living room. Toys were strewn everywhere and I had to watch my step. I followed the mom into her kitchen—the cleanest part of the apartment I could see—and she nodded to the table, on which I set everything; I'd been carrying groceries. The mom went through a dark hallway, probably to put the baby in her crib or something. I stayed in the kitchen.
Kyle had disappeared, but I noticed him again as he tugged on my sweatshirt. He held up a capeless Superman action figure, waving it at me.
"What?" I asked.
He moved the man some more.
"You wanna play with it or what?"
His eyebrows furrowed, looking hilariously serious for a four-year-old, and he shoved Superman at me some more.
Once I took it, he smiled. "You're giving it to me?"
Surprisingly, Kyle nodded, smiling.
He just stared up at me, smiling some more. He had big brown eyes that felt familiar, like the brown hair/brown eyes combo almost everyone in the world had.
"You don't talk much, do you?"
Like I got an answer.
The mom came in. "What did he do now?"
I held up the toy. "The little man gave me Superman. Does he talk?"
The mom's smile faltered; a nerve had been hit. "No. Not since Frank died."
The atmosphere shifted, and it was depressing. Kyle, oblivious to the change, went into the living room, picking up another toy along the way.
"Was he your husband?" I asked.
She avoided looking at me and busied herself with the groceries. "Yeah. He was a police officer. He died two months ago."
I blanched; twice in one day didn't feel so hot. "Can I ask how?" Like I didn't know the answer.
"Police work, of course," she put the eggs away in the small fridge, "and he always worked late. He'd been on the force for twelve years, never had one accident. Pass me the carrots." I rooted for them and passed them to her. "So, when he was late for dinner, it didn't surprise me. It was eleven o'clock, and he wasn't home, and that didn't surprise me either. The bread?" Her voice shook, and her hand did too as I gave them to her. "It was almost midnight when I got the call."
I cleared my throat as I passed her the milk. "I'm sorry for your loss." In my head I was like oh my God, oh my God! WTF?! @#&*! This is her! It's her!!
I managed to pass a cantaloupe without dropping it.
"Thank you, Jake… for everything." Her eyes turned watery again. We had finished putting everything away, and she was looking for something to do. "If I'd lost Kyle today…." She shook her head, not wanting to finish.
"Um, is there anything else I can do for you?" She suddenly looked so vulnerable, the seams starting to undo themselves.
"You've done a lot today," she said, smiling and hastily wiping away a tear. "And it's not even noon yet."
Kyle came back into the kitchen, waving something red: Superman's cape. He looked different to me now—Kyle, not Superman. This was Frank's little boy. His big brown eyes held a new meaning. I reached for Superman, standing menacingly on the kitchen table, and helped Kyle fasten the cape on. Clark Kent never looked so good.
I wanted to give the kid his toy back, but he wouldn't take it. He crossed his arms, smiling and shaking his head. I would move Superman forward, and Kyle would move back. I pull the man back, and Kyle moved forward. It was hilarious.
The mom smiled. "Oh, just keep it. I haven't…."
I looked up. "Haven't what?" I still moved the toy around.
She sighed, watching Kyle refuse. "I haven't seen him smile like that since… you know."
I turned back to the little boy. He was having too much fun getting away from Superman. I smiled at the kid. I wanted to start crying.
Instead, I sighed and straightened up. "I guess I should go." I made Superman bounce lightly on Kyle's head, and he laughed as he tried to get away. Superman then pretended to kick Kyle, going "Hi-yah!" and "Pssh! Pssh! Aaaah!" as he and Kyle fought (yes, it was really me). The little kid was eating it up.
She had been watching me play with him. "You sure?"
I didn't look up; maybe she wouldn't like that. "Do you need me for something else?" Kyle almost whacked Superman out of my hand.
"Well, no…." She needed me. Well, not me, but someone. She was one woman—a widow—supporting two children under five. She needed help.
"If you want me to, I can stay… uh…."
"Sophia. You can call me Sophia." I knew that. "And, if there's some place you need to be…." She shook her head. "You can come by anytime." Judging from her response, she wanted me to stay, but at the same time didn't want to have to ask. And I couldn't force myself on her, know what I mean? I'd intruded enough.
"I guess I'll see you around," I said, heading for the door. "Another day, little man," said Superman (me).
Kyle laughed. I wanted to go back, but I already opened the door. His laughter followed me to the elevator. When it was just me, the elevator didn't bother me, but I still didn't like it. I'm not ashamed to admit I played with Superman a little, making him fly around—anything to distract myself—then shoved him in my pocket once the doors opened. Stepping out of the small space felt good.
Outside looked exactly the same as it had before. But everything was still different. Definitely changed.