It was the steady and soothing motion of the red line train that massaged both me and Alec into a deep sleep that night. A big part of it came from the exhaustion of running the streets all day long, and that allowed us to sleep through the invasive symphony of constant noise that surrounded us all night as we moved from train platform to train platform. Especially around 2:30 AM after all of the bars let out and the party-goers filled up every available space around us. What is it about alcohol that makes people wanna SHOUT so damn much? Not even for any particular reason. They’re just shouting for the sake of making noise. It’s so stupid.
But despite it all, nobody really bothered us the entire time we were there. We’d sleep for two hours on the ride all the way up north, then a loud banging would scare us awake as the Howard Street engineers forced everybody to wake up and get off the train. Then I’d have to pick Alec up in my arms, and carry him him up the steep flight of stairs in front of me, then down the other side to catch the next train going South to 95th street again. And the second we found a decent seat, we went right back to sleep for another two hour ride. The interruptions didn’t even bother me that much after the second or third time we made the trip.
I kept Alec’s socks and shoes on the seat beside me the whole time, and I found a plastic bag on one of the cars after a few rounds. So I was able to put them in there and keep what little stuff we had together in one safe place. But I do remember that at one point, we were sitting on a train car all by ourselves…we had just sat down and Alec was curled up into a little ball at my side, his nose and cheeks blushed with a touch of cold. And I felt this intense wave of sadness rush through me. Straight from the center of my heart and up into my eyes where tears began to roll down my cheeks. I held Alec tight in my arms, wishing I could make things better. Wishing I could keep him warm. Wishing I could keep him SAFE. But I was failing. Things were getting worse, and I was finding it nearly impossible to hold on to the illusion that I was in control of anything at all. I was 14 years old…what did I know about survival on the city streets? I had almost NO money left. I had nowhere to go to rest or lay my head for the next couple of nights. And here I had this defenseless little boy depending on me to truly be there for him. He needed me to be a soldier. He needed me to have a clear plan and know where we were going next. How am I going to look into those big innocent eyes in a few hours and tell him that we had about two meals left to last us the rest of the week?
I wiped the stray tears away with the sleeve of my shirt, probably leaving a small smudge of dirt behind…but they just kept coming. I thought hard about what Trevor said…and he was right. Things aren’t going to just go back to normal once I get home. In fact…nothing in my life was ever going to be the same again. It was done. Over. Even now, the rumors of my disgusting sexuality were rapidly eating away at my previous identity like rust through old metal. Tainting it. All of my friends, all of my relatives…everything that I had ever known and grown accostomed to…gone. Forever. Because of ONE kiss. One rejected kiss. When I go home…’IF’ I go home…those same people that were once my whole life are going to surround me with a level of misery and malice that will devour me alive.
That fear…that cold, unfeeling, inconceivable sadness…seemed to take a hold of my heart and crush it in a vice like grip, squeezing the life out of it as I came to the realization that I was suddenly all alone in the world. Completely and utterly…alone. And as Alec tried to snuggle in close for warmth, I knew that not even his trust in me could save me from the horrors I was about to face when this little runaway scheme came to an end.
How do I do it? How do I come to grips with the fact that my life was over? And that I had now officially lost…well, everything?
I can remember the train coming up out of the subway some time later…and having my eyes flutter open to see the sky brightening with the rising sun. The once shadowed and bleak shroud of darkness was now being illuminated with glorious shades of yellow, orange, and a tint of redness. Beautiful. Something about the dawn always calmed me. And something tells me that it always will.
I thought back to a day when I was out on the beach with my father…and the sun had just risen out of the ocean. He was coming home, unloading a bunch of his work tools off of the back of his truck and handing them to me. My father was the kind of man that I was hoping to be someday. Strong, but with a tenderness that spoke volumes just through the gentle nature of his smile. Handsome, confident, caring, wise. Seeing him in the golden light of those early morning hours always warmed my heart. It made me feel safe, inside and out.
“So…” He said to me. “…Your mother tells me that she’s been trying to inspire you to get out of the house more. Maybe get you involved in a few activities for the summer.”
I cringed at the idea. I never knew what it was about parents that just compelled them to bother you as often as possible. Why don’t they understand that some teenagers just want to be left ALONE. Especially during the Summer. “Yeah. She wants me to sign up for stuff at the Community Rec Center or something. Baseball, basketball, bowling, arts and crafts…anything to get me outside, I guess.” I told him.
“Is that right?” He gave me a warm smile, and I returned it to him without effort. “So, what are you looking to pick up?”
“I don’t know…” I sighed. “…I mean…everything just seems so lame in comparison to just laying around the house and relaxing for the next few months.”
“There’s more to life than hanging around and doing nothing, Taryn.”
“I know. I know.” I moaned. “Whatever. I mean…she said I could pretty much have my pick of anything I wanted. You know…if I really wanted to do it.”
“And do you?” He asked me. I looked down at my feet for a second, fidgeting. Not knowing if he really wanted to hear the truth or not. I didn’t like the idea of doing anything much over the next few months, but you kind of expect both of your parents to always be on the same side on just about every issue that they discuss.
But the moment he saw me searching for an answer, he looked me directly in the eyes. “Hey now. What’s the number one rule that I always told you to follow?” I rolled my eyes with a grin, but he asked again. “Come on. Let me hear it.” He said. “You should never act on any impulse…”
“…That requires hesitation. I know, Dad.” I said.
“Alright then. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t. You tell your mother the truth and find something you DO want to do with your Summer.”
“What if I don’t want to do anything with my Summer?” I asked, as he handed me the last of the toolboxes off of the truck.
“Well, that’s your choice too. I wouldn’t recommend it though. It’s better that you do something constructive than waste your life on garbage television and junk food.” My father put his hand on my shoulder, and with a tone of true sincerity in his voice, he said, “Life is short, kiddo. Youth is even shorter. You’ve gotta get all the mileage you can out of both. Because it’s not going to last forever. You’ll be surprised at how fast you reach a day when you wake up one morning and realize that you don’t recognize your own reflection anymore.” Then he ruffled my hair with his hand and smiled. “Enjoy life, Taryn. Every last minute of it. Because you never know when it’ll suddenly be over….”
With a gasp, I was pulled out of my thoughts, holding tightly to Alec as he slept peacefully in my embrace. The tiniest little snoring noise coming from his angelic face. I leaned down to kiss the top of his forehead, realizing that I must have been half asleep for the imagery of those flashbacks to feel so incredibly real. And at that moment…the pain of missing my father nearly overwhelmed me to the point of weeping in front of everybody else on the train. If only he could be here now to guide me. To tell me what to do. God, I feel so lost right now.
Another half hour passed, and the train began to get more and more crowded as people in business suits stated their morning commute to work. With their newspapers and their briefcases and their pretty little designer cups of corporate coffee espressos. I took Alec’s babyish socks and shoes down from the heating vent to hide them beside me, and I was suddenly aware of how awful I must have looked. How awful BOTH of us must have looked, actually. My hair was a mess, there was dirt on my clothes…I had scrapes on my forehead, and a busted lip. Alec and I hadn’t had a proper bath in a few days…and being around all of these well dressed people, some of them looking at us with a sense of either pity or superiority…I became extremely self conscious of our situation. I just wished that I could curl up into a little ball the same way Alec did, so I could hide our faces from the rest of the world.
It only took about 20 minutes of heading back towards the city for the wave of involuntary self loathing to become too much to bear. Besides, Alec was beginning to wake up from the increase in city noise. People talking on cell phones, super loud cassette walkman headphones blaring, and the constant shuffle of feet as new passengers got on and off. I gently shook Alec to a full state of consciousness, and he coughed a little bit, rubbing his eyes with a whimper. His socks were still pretty damp, and since Jason and his crew of homophobic thugs had taken our stuff, I didn’t have anything else to give him. So I rolled the socks up and just let him put his shoes back on without them. Of course, the shoes were still damp as well from him jumping in puddles last night, but for some reason I figured wet shoes would be better than wet socks any day.
“Mmmmm….Taryn…?” He groaned.
“My throat hurts.” He said, physically touching his neck as though he could massage the soreness out like a bad leg cramp.
“Your throat hurts? See? What did mom tell you about playing in the water? Remember?” I said, rolling his pants legs up a little more. Hiding the damp part of the material. Alec scrunched up his face a little bit, and coughed right in my hair. “Cover your mouth, Alec. C’mon.”
People were kinda glancing over at us, and having their eyes watch me…ugh, I just HATED it! It got to the point where I just gave them some dirty looks to keep them from staring at me like some kind of freak. We were NOT freaks. A little down on our luck at the moment, but that didn’t give them the right to look at us like we were trash.
Then again, maybe it was all in my head. Paranoia works in strange ways sometimes.
We got off of the subway and went back out onto the street. It was maybe 8:30 in the morning, but I couldn’t tell for certain. All of the bank clocks told a different time, it seemed. I felt so yucky, my clothes sticking to me with an uncomfortable level of four day old filth. I looked down at Alec and wiped a few smudges of mud off of his cheeks and neck, with my sleeve. It looked like his nose was running a little bit, but I used the bottom of his t-shirt to wipe that off. I already felt ugly and dirty enough without walking around the downtown area with kid snot on my shirt.
There was a moment when I just looked at the buzzing pedestrian traffic around us, our presence almost entirely swallowed up by the towering skyscrapers above us. Looking in all directions…I realized that I had absolutely NO ideas about where to go next. None whatsoever. Every direction intimidated me with its overwhelming and endless possibilities. And yet, every direction also seemed to mock me with humiliating laughter as it pointed out how limited I was in what I’d actually be able to do with my rapidly dwindling supply of money. Any second, Alec was sure to feel a rumbling in his tummy and start asking about breakfast. He was already tired and cranky, and catching a cold from the looks and sounds of it. He was coughing even more, and rubbing his throat. A few sniffles being added as the cooler morning air started to get to him. I thought that I might be able to spend two dollars at the nearby convenience store, to get a small package of tissues and some candy to keep Alec’s hunger at bay until I found something cheap to feed us. I should be using napkins since they’re free, but they make Alec’s nose all red and irritated when it’s not soft Kleenex or tissue. Maybe I can spend three dollars if they had a small pack of throat lozenges. I definitely wanted to keep Alec happy, but our money was going to be EXTREMELY tight from now on, and we still had three days left to go.
I am totally on a ‘fish and loaves’ budget right now.
“Taryn, I wanna go home…” Alec whined.
“Not just yet, k? We’re gonna be on vacation for just a little bit longer.”
“Nooooo, I don’t feel good. I wanna go home NOW.”
I took Alec by the hand and pulled him along, getting him into the small convenience store. I didn’t say anything at first, hoping to avoid the question entirely, and maybe distract Alec’s stubbornness with some junky plastic toy or something once we got inside. The faster I got his mind off of going home, the better.
But he continued to pull back from me, even inside the store. He protested, and his whines were quickly being thrown at me in a higher pitch. Almost in tiny sobs and whimpers. Things were getting worse. “Alec, I need you to be a big boy right now, ok? If you’re good, I’ll take us back to the zoo again today. You wanna go back to the zoo? See the monkeys?”
“We went to the zoo already. I wanna go HOME!” He said louder.
“I know, Alec. I know you wanna go home, but you’re gonna have to trust big brother right now. It’s just gonna be a few more days, and then we can go home…and we can see Mommy…”
“I wanna go home NOW!!!” He said, his forehead wrinkled up almost as if he was about to cry. Then he coughed some more, and I looked for something in the store, ANYTHING, that might keep his brain occupied before I found myself dealing with a major Alec meltdown in the middle of the aisle. I held him tight by the wrist, hoping to find him some kind of amusement…so I tugged a bit harder, looking around at the shelves around me.
I blindly grabbed a doggie toy and squeezed it a bit to make a bit of noise. “See, Alec? Look, just…just hold this for me for a second, ok?” I handed it to him, but he angrily threw it down to the ground. “ALEC! C’mon…don’t do this right now? Ok? Please?” I was soooo tired. Soooo exhausted. I can’t deal with the extra attitude right now. I just needed time to think. If only I could buy myself an hour, I might be able to come up with a fresh game plan. Just…JUST a bit longer, baby brother. Please? Alec folded his arms, his eyes practically changing colors as the fury of not getting his way began to build to a boiling point. “We’re just going to grab a few things from this store, and then I’m gonna take you some place really special, ok? Some place fun.”
“You’re fibbing! You’re not gonna take me nowhere fun! I wanna go HOME!”
“I WANNA GO HOME!!!” He screamed, and he pulled something else off the shelf to throw it down to the floor.
“BEHAVE!!!” I demanded, hoping to take a firm enough stance to calm him down. I didn’t want him to even consider kicking and screaming as an option right now. I’ve seen Alec’s bratty tantrums before, and they can be extremely WILD once he gets going! It’s not often that you really witness so much ‘RAGE’ in a boy that small.
I walked away from him a bit to try to grab a candy treat or something that might do the trick. I don’t know…maybe some Tootsie Rolls? Or a honey bun, he likes those. Just then I heard a crash, and I looked back to see that Alec had knocked over a whole rack of key chains at the end of the aisle. His bottom lip was stuck out, his eyes red with anger, and he began to literally throw stuff around in the store like some kind of pint-sized maniac! “I don’t FEEL good!!!! I wanna go HOME!!! I want my MOM!!! I *HATE* YOU!!! I *HATE* YOU!!!” He screamed. “I don’t WANNA be on vacation anymore!!!!! I wanna go HOME! I wanna go HOME! I WANNA GO *HOME*!!!” And he threw some more stuff off of the shelf as I raced over to get some control over him. I had to grab both of Alec’s wrists to force him to put the merchandise down as he wiggled and squirmed to get away from me. There was a big mess around our feet, and the guy at the register wasn’t too happy about it. Especially when Alec began to angrily stomp down on it with both feet!
“Hey! You damn kids! What the hell are you DOING???” He yelled.
“I’m sorry, sir. We’ll clean it up…” I said, but it was then that I felt a sharp pain in my arm as Alec BIT me in an attempt to get me to let him go. I swear…I don’t think there is anything on this EARTH sharper than baby teeth. “Owwwwww! What the…?!?!” I grabbed Alec by the shoulders and shook him violently. “STOP IT!!! You hear me??? What the hell is the matter with you? KNOCK IT OFF!!!”
But Alec just began to cry, still struggling to get his arms free. “I don’t wanna be here anymore. I HATE it, Taryn! I don’t like this!” He sobbed. “Take me back to Mom! I HATE YOU!!!”
“That’s *NOT* gonna happen! You hear me?” I said, looking him angrily in the eyes, putting an end to this bratty bullshit once and for all. “Now stop being a BABY! Are you a baby? HUH???”
“I’m NOT a baby!!!”
“Alright then! You stop acting like a baby and pick this stuff up!” He moaned and sniffled, and then he coughed some more…a bit of phlegm rattling around in the back of his throat. But he wouldn’t let go of the anger. He was hungry, tired, weak, getting sick, probably bored out of his mind…
…Alec was officially switching sides on me. And this wasn’t a fun and playful little adventure between two brothers anymore. The novelty of it all had worn off…and it wouldn’t be long before Alec became a real enemy in the middle of this fiasco.
He calmed down just enough for me to let him go, but he was still sniffling, a few tears streaming from his eyes. I began to pick up some of the mess, and Alec, with a pouty face, started to help me. Stuff had been thrown in every direction, and I eventually stopped to look up towards the register to apologize once again. “I’m really sorry about this. Honestly, sir. Alec…tell the man you’re sorry.” I turned to look for him…and Alec was gone. “Alec? ALEC???”
I checked every aisle of the convenience store in a matter of seconds, spinning in circles to see where he might have gone. But he was nowhere in sight. I charged out of the door, and looked in both directions. It was then, that I saw Alec walking down the street all by himself as fast as his little legs could carry him. A surge of pure ANGER flooded into my veins, and I ran top speed to go and catch the little fucker! I swear…it took everything that I had to not STRANGLE him for causing me so much more unnecessary stress. I was reaching a boiling point of my own, and if I had to tie Alec up and shove him into a fucking POTATO SACK for the next 3 days, then so be it. But I can’t deal with his childish tantrums right now. I just don’t have the energy.
I snatched Alec by the back of his neck and pulled him to the side of the sidewalk as people passing by stared at us. Alec fought furiously to keep my hands off of him, but I took hold of his collar and pressed him up against a nearby wall. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING??? WHAT DID I TELL YOU ABOUT WALKING OFF FROM ME??? WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT HOLDING MY HAND??? YOU DON’T GO ANYWHERE BY YOURSELF!! NOT EVER!!! DO YOU HEAR ME???” He kept fighting me and I told him to STOP but…he wouldn’t stop. It was like he had completely turned against me, and I had lost all control of the situation. “Alec!!! Alec…?” The fatigue seemed to weigh sooooo heavy on my shoulders all at once. It was an emotional outburst that had taken me by surprise…and I was just so tired of fighting at this point. So tired of struggling. Not just these few days on the streets of Chicago…but for the last few years since my father first passed away. Something about trying to get a hold of Alec and keep him calm at that moment just opened the floodgates, to the point where the exhaustion caused tears of my own to bleed from my eyes. “Alec…Alec, please?” I sniffled, still trying to keep him from flailing his arms. The pedestrians on the street looking at me like I was trying to kidnap my own little brother or something. I know that Alec needed a guardian that was worthy of him right now. I know that he needed to rely on someone that knew what the hell they were doing. But…if he could just be WITH me on this…for just a little bit longer, I’ll do everything I can to make things better. I SWEAR I will. I just needed him to play the game by the same rules, and I couldn’t seem to get him to do that. Even though he needed me to be strong…I needed him to be strong even more. I’m depending on him to survive the next three days. I can’t make it without him. I can’t. “Alec…?”
“I don’t feel good! My tummy feels funny!” He said, his arms now losing some of their swing as his limbs tired out.
“Alec…please don’t do this, ok? I know you don’t feel good…but I’m going to take care of you. You know I will.” I tried to keep my tears to a minimum, but the emotional ‘choke’ of the it all was almost too much to deal with. “We can’t fight right now. We have to be together on this. Ok?”
He looked soooo sad. So hurt. He didn’t understand. He didn’t know what I was saving him from in ‘Chuck’s’ household. “I wanna go home….”
“We’re gonna go home. Together. We WILL. Just not yet, ok? And when we get home, Mom is gonna make those apple pancakes you like so much…and there’s that raspberry lemonade that you like in the refrigerator, remember? And you’ll have a nice warm bed and pillows..and you can watch TV. And I’ll let you play my Nintendo. Ok?” Alec didn’t say anything, but I saw another tear slide down his cheek, and it was heartbreaking. I gave him a hug, and thankfully…his thin arms wrapped around my neck and he laid his head on my shoulder. “I LOVE you, Alec. I’m not gonna let anything bad happen to you, ok? Not ever.” I sniffled. “Please, believe in me. It’s the only thing I’ve got left to help me believe in myself right now.”
“My tongue feels weird.” He said. It struck me as a really odd comment, so I let go of the hug and looked at his face.
“Your tongue feels what?” And just at that moment, Alec leaned his head down…and vomited all over the sidewalk. I fell backwards just in time to avoid getting showered with it…and the pedestrians just kept walking by…turning to look, but hardly paying either one of us much attention other than to utter a quick ‘ewwww’ or simply gasp and turn away. “Jesus! Alec!”
It was only two quick bursts and maybe a dry heave or two…but as soon as he was finished, he started to cry. Probably more from humiliation than anything else, but it didn’t help us look any more ‘sane’ to all the people passing by. “I don’t feeeeeeel good….” He whined.
I got up on my feet, and said, “It’s ok, dude. It’s…um…it’s ok.” I looked around and saw a fast food joint next to us. “Wait RIGHT here, Alec, ok? Don’t move!” I ran in really fast and grabbed as many napkins as I could. Then I ran back outside to see Alec still standing in the same place, wiping his eyes. Thankfully he didn’t get much of anything on his shirt. Walking around without socks is one thing. Walking around without a shirt on would be hard to explain. I took some time to clean Alec’s mouth and then his shirt. A little bit on his shoes too. That was totally unexpected, but not as hard to deal with as I thought it would be. Geez, you’ll deal with just about anything when you truly care for somebody like this.
Alec looked almost HURT for displaying his weaknesses like this, and I thought he was almost ready to start sobbing out loud again. He said, “I’m sorry, Taryn. I didn’t mean to throw up….” He sniffled. Actually, the way he said it was more like ‘frow up’, but even with him being sick, it was adorable.
“It’s ok, Alec. I won’t tell Mommy you had to ‘frow up’. Ok? It’ll be our little secret.” I said, and finished scrubbing him as clean as possible before we stood up and started walking again. Ok…so I don’t have a lot of money on me, but it’s obvious that I’ve got to get Alec some medicine. Something that won’t be too harsh on his little stomach or anything. Maybe something that will make him sleepy though. The more of this ordeal that he can sleep through, the better. Because he’s already beginning to overpower my methods of keeping him entertained. And the NEXT time he throws a hellish temper tantrum…it’s going to be a LOT worse. Alec’s not known for his patience when it comes to these things. I’m in no way prepared to deal with this. I don’t even know how Mom does it half the time. It’s a skill I don’t possess. Who knows? Maybe….maybe he’s better off with her around to…
No…NO! He’s staying with me until HE’S gone. That’s all there is to it. I can take care of him. I know I can. How hard can it be? A couple of rough times, and I try to just get rid of him? No. Alec is looking for me to take care of him, and I plan to do exactly that. Even if it kills me. Making sure that he’s safe is my responsibility now.
I finished cleaning him up. An easy job compared to the mud and rainwater that I had to scrub off of him a day or two or ago. His little belly stuck out, and I heard him cough a few more times, grimacing as it hurt his throat to do so. “Come here, Alec. Let me feel…” I said, and I put my hand on his forehead. He was burning up with fever, and I knew that I was going to at least get him some aspirin to get it to go down. And probably something to settle his stomach. Store brand stuff shouldn’t be that much, right? A couple of dollars at the most? We’ll just have to eat cheap for dinner, and maybe I can get us a package of cookies to last us long enough to skip lunch. If I strategize just right, we can get though this. Maybe…we can like…’beg’ for a little change? A few more dollars would certainly help. Not much. And it’s not like we’d be doing it forever. Just…for a day or two. Just enough to get enough food in our bellies to last us until my mom comes home and we straighten this whole mess out to the point where we’ll be safe from Chuck’s advances.
Alec began to whimper a bit more…and I wiped his nose for him.
“Blow out, Alec.” I told him, and he blew his nose into the napkin I was holding up to his face. It was wet, and there was no doubt about it…him playing in that damn puddle last night had gotten him sick. And faster than I ever could have expected. Little kids are virtual sponges for disease. Especially in the big city where the streets are always crowded, and everything you touch has already been touched by a million dirty, germ covered, hands before you. All of them rife with some form of disease that little Alec hasn’t built up a biochemical defense against yet. Not at his age. I cleared out his sinuses a bit, and wiped his nose and upper lip clean. “Good boy.”
So…what now? What plan do I have for the next few hours? I suppose I could find something to entertain my baby brother for a little while, but an entire day? Not likely.
It was at that moment that I thought back to Trevor’s smile last night. The gleam in his eyes. The cute little tilt of his smile. I mean…I didn’t want to bow and scrape for his help again. Not after he had done so much for me and Alec already. But, I mean…he’s got to live somewhere around here, right? It’s got to be pretty close too, if he keeps finding me the way he has been the last few days. And if he’s got enough money to buy us popcorn and pizza and stuff…I don’t know…maybe he’s got a decent place for us to stay in. Maybe a hot shower, some food…a video game or some toys to keep Alec busy. If I can just buy myself an extra day or two, it would REALLY help. And it would be good for Alec to stay indoors for a while and get some restful sleep without worry. He’s only going to get more sick out here on the streets, and from the look of the clouds in the grey skies above us…it was gonna rain again. I could practically smell it in the air around us.
Buckingham Fountain…9 PM. I’ll keep that in mind. Something tells me…Trevor is going to be able to give me just what I need to make it these last few days. Me and Alec both. All I have to do…
…Is wait until the sun goes down.