I walked home under the sunlight. The sun hadn’t touched the horizon, and the cars that zoomed past hadn’t turned on their headlights. I walked on the pavement kicking the stones under my feet.
The city I lived in was always never without the gentle sunlight. It swept the city gently, shimmering over the glass and steel buildings. The walkway had warmth to it that made you yearn to touch it with bare feet. I walked while taking deep breaths. The sky was beautiful, with clouds that ran in streaks of white and an occasional group of birds clustered together sweeping past. The trees rustled on my right whenever a car rolls past. It was always the quiet cars, zooming through at high speeds that pull leaves off their branches.
I passed by a cluster of stores. The restaurant was the most endearing to me, with its salmon pink awning and the scent of tea pulling in other pedestrians. The souvenir shop beside it was underwhelming in comparison. Postcards attached messily on the window. Rolled up posters shoved against the open door. Key chains crowded the stand as if ready to fall off any second. Across the souvenir shop, a convenience store was bright and crowded with people. A man leaning near the entrance to the convenience store lighted his cigarette and flicked his ashes on the road.
I swatted my face as I walked past him, my face armed with a look of utter disgust. He looked away.
I entered my apartment building. It was a simple building with only fifteen tenants, none that I knew personally. Neither I nor they had an interest in knowing each other, since the bulk of them never stayed too long. I don’t think it’s the rent or the plumbing. It just happens.
The building was built to match the landlord’s other apartment complex on the other side of town. The other apartment complex had bathtubs on every room and a working elevator. Both building have 5 stories. Both rarely had tenants with near-permanent residence. Both were built in the image of function over style. Both had red exposed bricks and large window sills. Both had dying perennials in flower pots by the double doors.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t tired or anything, but I couldn’t bring myself to enter the apartment building. My to-do list was ringing alarms in my head. Laundry, dinner, tomorrow’s breakfast. To function like a normal human. Maybe, I would treat myself with tea and snuggly socks after I’m done with everything. Surely, it could provide some sort of motivation for me. I just needed to push the door. Just one or two more things to do, and then the day will be done and I would wake up feeling better.
Just one or two more things to do.
I prayed tonight be a normal night.
There’s a single solitary bus stop. Trees moving like shadows. I don’t have shoes on, but it’s not the familiar warm pavement in the city. I’m standing on the road. I can’t see any headlights shining on me or any rumbling of engine. I don’t recognize this place.
The bus stop has a jarring effect on me. It is too bright for the night, and without any other light source, it has become the brightest thing. But in the middle of this empty road, it’s the only thing around. Whether it comforts me or not, it’s the only thing I have. I don’t want to get any farther from this bus stop.
I sit on one of the plastic seats.
I wait some more.
There’s barking in the distance.
I don’t have anywhere to go. The barking gets louder and louder, but I can’t get away from here, I can’t move away, and it gets louder, louder, louder, and I can’t stop it. I fold my legs on the chair, clamp my hands over my ear. I can still hear it. The barking and the barking and the barking and the barking and the barking.
It wasn’t a normal night.
I don’t eat sushi, but it was Kevin’s birthday party, so I crammed five slices of sashimi inside my mouth.
Kevin was my coworker. He was the imports analyst, and the best one I had ever met. He was exceedingly meticulous and principled, although he barely looked the part. The face of an analyst, before I met him, was a tall man with a slump and thick glasses. He was tall, but it was because of the shoes he wore everyday gave him 5 centimeters to his height. He wore glasses but only occasionally to compliment his look. He didn’t have a slump because he loved swimming. I knew him for three years and somewhere along the way he took a liking to me.
Kevin was a great man.
We were in a modern sushi restaurant that smells like the price. We were seated in the second floor, by glass railings. Our seat overlooks the entrance and the stone stairs by a large window that glimpsed into the garden. The waiters and waitresses scurried underneath.
Kevin said it was his treat, and it was a royal treat. Plates and plates of food was arranged on the table like an offering. My stomach growled in response.
The sashimi folded inside my tongue. It was soft and cool, and parted under my teeth without my jaw clamping on it. It slid into my throat smoothly. With soy sauce, the tenderness of the fish is with an explosion of sharp taste that melded well with the meat. The saltiness warmed the insides of my mouth where the sashimi cooled down. I added wasabi and the instant my tongue touched the wasabi, the equilibrium of soy sauce and sashimi didn’t waver. Instead, I felt the underside of my cheek and my tongue, which were touched by the sushi, cleansed and my nasal cavities felt like it was cleared. My palate was ready for another bite.
As I ate, I listened distractedly, laughing and nodding in intervals. Georgia’s son just won the regional karate championship. Arijit recently picked up A Clockwork Orange. Dee had her high school reunion last week and the host messed up the invitations. Trey’s neighbour’s car got stolen.
“God, am I glad he was gone. Remember the Gulf of Aden project?”
Suddenly they were talking about Burke. The salmon in my mouth suddenly wasn’t as great as before, and the smell of fish was suddenly strong and sharp, I felt like I could slice the air with it.
“One of the worst pages in SSC history.”
My throat itched with words I couldn’t say. The Gulf of Aden project wasn’t Burke’s fault. It was mine. He took the blame and paid for it, while I was praised and applauded. I wasn’t the intermodal manager then. I messed up a shipment and tried to cover it up by making a risky plan of changing the course. I managed to do it, but there were consequences.
The general manager knew I messed up, but he kept me around. He didn’t keep Burke who worked with me, but me, because I was obedient and I fixed the situation. I was transferred into my current position. Even though the whole fiasco wouldn’t have happened without me messing up.
The whole incident spread all over the company, but the story grew into a monster. Burke sabotaged the project. Everyone on the team conspired with him. Except me, because I was the newbie. I was the hero who proposed the change of route, who bet my career on the success of the project and won. The rumour poisoned all of us. Some of us quit. The rest just went on with spite for the one person who saved the project.
Burke is a great man who didn’t deserve us talking like this about him.
We were all great people.
“Does it even matter anymore? He’s gone,” Freddie interrupted. He swung a large glass of beer as if it was a trophy. “It is your birthday party, Kev. Away with the business talk!”
Freddie winked at me.
It was as if he knew I became uncomfortable with the topic.
I’m back in the bus stop. This time, I’m cold all over. I have to constantly rub my hands together. My breath swirls in the air for a second before disappearing. The plastic seat feels warm compared to my fingers.
The silent glare of the light in the bus stop is haunting me again. I stare back at the light until I get phosphenes. I squeeze my eyes shut.
I can’t sit here forever. Yet the darkness is palpable. If I were to stand and try to walk into the darkness, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to breathe. The air is still as if waiting for my decision.
I stay seated.
The barking comes and goes. It’s still here today. Like any other day.
And like any other day, it doesn’t stop.
I have to do something. I can’t just stay glued to this seat.
I fear the palpable darkness, but I must try to do something with it.
I get up. I walk a few steps away from the bus stop, but I keep my feet planted on the ground with light on it. As long as I still have a shadow, I’ll be alright, I hope.
I left my apartment with a baggage of thoughts.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Freddie doing exactly what I wanted to do. Why couldn’t I do it? It was so easy to glare at strangers on the road. Burke got blamed on because of me, yet I couldn’t even defend his name. Burke didn’t deserve this. I do.
If I couldn’t even do this, then I may as well be not worth anything. Because all the stuff I do at work is nothing compared to Burke’s. Burke was always better than me and he got fired because of my misstep.
If I got fired instead of Burke, they might talk about me instead. An uneasy feeling resided in my stomach. What would Burke do? Something, definitely. Just, something. He wouldn’t just sit there like I did.
I’m not Burke. I’m not Freddie.
I’m not a proper, genuine person like them. I’m a fool, masquerading around as the intermodal manager. Empty words and empty deeds, fooling myself into thinking I’m worth it, that it’s OK for me to stay in the place that punished Burke because of me.
It was a day hotter than any other day. The luster of the windows morphed into that of a ray and the skyscrapers grew larger in the mirage of the heat. I felt like a chicken on a frying pan, except I wasn’t crisp, I was greasy. The restaurant that I pass by a lot looked more crowded than usual. It seems like a lot of people couldn’t stand walking around in this heat, so they stop by if they could in shops with air conditioners.
I decided I would take a shorter route than usual. Normally, I would take a route cutting through the city park as a refresher, but I doubt seeing trees would help me in this heat. It would be faster if I walk the perimeter of the park and take second turn instead of the third.
Under the second traffic light I passed by on my way, a small crowd of people gathered. A hushed tone ran through the people. Some people had their phones out, their arms thrown forward to whatever it is.
“Somebody call the ambulance.”
“Isn’t he the hobo who’s normally in front of the city hall?”
“Don’t look, don’t look!”
Something bad must have happened. Maybe I could be for once, the Freddie of the streets. The one who helped others subtly and seamlessly.
As I shoved my way closer to the epicenter of the crowd, I was right, something bad did happen. A man had collapsed on the ground and left a red puddle underneath him. His shirt was soaked blood red, and his chest was barely rising. He long gashes that ran across his chest, visible through his ripped shirt. Blood coated his entire arm and bloody handprints could be seen on his sleeves.
I forced myself to swallow my vomit.
I’m not Burke or Freddie. But there’s no stopping me from wanting to be like them. Even if I’m like this.
“What is wrong with all of you?”
That wasn’t me.
A woman with tightly curled locks parted the crowd. She took off her scarf and dabbed it over the man’s wound.
“If you’re just gonna watch, get lost!”
A stout woman with a rounded nose spoke up. “I called the ambulance.”
“Then you have nothing else to do here,” she retorted sharply. The stout woman frowned.
The crowd immediately frayed. The stout woman stood for a moment and decided to leave, trickling away with the remnants of the crowd.
I stayed behind.
“Didn’t I tell you to get lost?”
I recognized the man. Every time I go to the city council to take care of company taxes, I always see him. He always sat with his left leg stacked on top of his right. Sometimes he left a piece of ripped cardboard in front of him for coins. Sometimes it would be an empty can. His hat was always a distinguishable trait. It was beet red with yellow buttons sewed on it. It looked like it was pulled from a comic book.
“That man is homeless. He wouldn’t have any money to pay for the ambulance,” I said.
The woman parted her lips, as if to say something, but I continued.
“I want to help.” I crouched beside her.
I learned basic first aid in high school, but nothing prepared me for a man with assault wounds. The school probably hoped I wouldn’t have to encounter that kind of situation.
I checked his breathing. It was fast, but he was still breathing. I check the wounds. He actually had more on his back, which I pointed out to the woman. The lacerations were so bad his skin was peeling off and pus collected around the wounds.
“Here it comes,” the woman mumbled.
I heard the siren before I saw the ambulance come. The woman stood up. The professional paramedics would take better care of him than the both of us.
It’s the bus stop again. I really can’t get used to this routine.
Here and there is no different. The bus stop remains alight under the night that never passes, under a ticking clock that never goes. Sometimes if I Iook at the dust that revolve under the light, I see a little bit of change, but it disappears quickly, far too quickly for me to appreciate the change.
Sometimes the wind changes, and I feel this in my extremities; but the change is subtle and quick I find it no different than flying dust under neon lights. Even if things like the wind and dust were to change, the darkness is still there beyond the perimeter of everything under the light. I still can’t go anywhere, if the darkness is still here to stop me. I’m stuck in this small space with nothing but myself.
The barking comes again.
I never went to this hospital before. The design was interesting; it was built circling a park in the centre. A large fountain with three plates and one central spout stood in the very center of the park. Bushes circled the perimeter of the park. The grass looked neatly cut and orchids and hibiscus dotted the park. It’s an interesting garden, but it’s not what I came for.
I headed straight into the man’s room on the third floor.
He was watching a nature documentary on TV. A deer, being chased by a cheetah, leapt fifteen feet into the air.
“Good afternoon,” I greeted him.
He nodded in my direction, seemingly unsure of what to say.
I realized that I didn’t carry any gift for a recuperating person, I only carried my shoulderbag that held a wad of papers -- printed timelines for work projects and my financial allocations journal that I needed to sort out before I could pay for the man’s healthcare.
“Sorry, I didn’t bring you anything,” I hurriedly added. “I’m here right now because I wanted to talk to you about something.”
He turned down the volume of the TV to listen to me.
“You don’t have to worry about hospital fees. I’m paying everything.”
He didn’t say anything in return, but I noticed his eyebrow twitch.
I continued, “I’m not asking for anything from you. You don’t have to trust me, but I’m all you got.”
Finally, he spoke, in a worn, hoarse voice. “You’re all I got.”
“Yes. Could you please tell me what happened that made you -- like, like that?”
He twisted around so that he wasn’t facing me anymore.
“If I told you that I don’t want to. . .” he began.
“It’s fine. It’s completely fine.”
He glared at me. “You’re insane. Look at this.” He gestured on the knife on beside his half eaten lunch. “I can grab this right now and stab it under your neck. I can wear your clothes and take your wallet when you’re dead. You don’t know me enough for whatever this is. Tell me what you want.”
I hesitated. “What was your childhood dream?”
“My dream,” I said, “was to become a painter. I wanted to paint soft clouds and silk, I wanted to paint the sky before it rains. I wanted to smell fresh paint in the morning and love the brush like a child.”
He took a moment before he answered me. “Why didn’t you become one?”
“I needed money so I got into shipping. But now it took all my time away from me. And I’ve become less than human.”
“And I’m a tool to make you feel better?”
“Those are crude terms. But yes.”
“You want to know what I think? I’m fine with that.”
I was surprised.
“You saved me, that’s what matters. I owe you my life. Thank you. But let me tell you this. You’re not less than human. I spend a lot of time there in front of the city hall. That gives me a lot of time to think and sometimes I also see things no one else does because I am no one. I saw the mayor drunk, I saw a punk give me his lunch. Sometimes I think, the way I am, I’d be better off dead. But I’m here now looking at someone who saved my life and thought different, that my life was actually worth something. So the way I see it, you’re the fool. If that’s the way you think, then you’re the most selfish being I’ve ever met on this planet.”
Burke. Freddie. The man. All great people. It never crossed my mind that someone considered me to be a genuinely great person. I considered them greater people than me, people who are out of my reach, that I can always strive to be like but I can never actually be like.
Work would always be suffocating. Everyone always talks.
When I left the man in his bed, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I held it as I walked home, the screen stuck on Contacts.
My finger hovered over the screen.
Finally, I made the call.
But I’ve still got a long way to go.
I’m back again, in the bus stop. It’s the same as always. The neon lights, the plastic seat, the roof. I wait here. I don’t get up and walk into the darkness. It seems like the area the light from the bus stop shone upon has expanded. I can see the entire width of the road and an area across it.
The barking comes again. I don’t clamp my hands over my ears.
Across the road is a vast expanse of grass that softly sway. The barking, I realize, comes from the direction of the grass. It gets louder, then it stops. It doesn’t come back.
But something comes.
It’s a dog. It’s Paul’s dog that died five years ago. His name was. . . No, I can’t remember. But it doesn’t matter. He always answers to Baby, anyway. His name isn’t necessary.
He barks, and it’s the same as the barking I always hear, but it’s also different. His bark is familiar. He still looks the same, well groomed golden fur that shimmers under the neon glare of the bus stop lights. The same lights that glaringly pierce my eyes, create a reflective glimmer on the dog. I see myself reflected on the dog’s clear eyes.
He jumps and sits on my lap. I remember Paul’s frantic searching for him, five hours spent yelling his name. I remember Paul screaming in tears when he found the mangled body and the tire tracks. It’s his birthday, Paul said. He got the worst gift.
The dog was ten years old. Paul took him in from the pound when he heard he was about to be euthanized. The dog was deaf which was why nobody wanted him. Until Paul. The dog was blind, and probably didn’t see the car coming. Paul would have liked to see him. Until the end, Paul sang Baby’s favorite song.
But Paul is no longer here. Like owner, like pet.
I stroke Baby’s head. He looks happy. A simple happiness.
He sits down, his head upturned. His eyes are as clear as a cloudless sky. He’s waiting. I remember Paul used to sing to him whenever he’s agitated. He wants me to sing.
I feel my cheeks are getting wet. I don’t wipe them away. I let them drop on the pavement.
And I sing. It is Baby’s favorite song, a song from Paul’s youth, that his mother sang to him and he sang to Baby.
The roots have taken
Their eyes, their compassion
The breath of set stone
Against the population
My love, the winter’s ardor
was never lost in you
Don’t seek, don’t weep
It is slowly coming through
The years are just for you
It was dark. But then the horizon breaks when the sun peeks a little to look at me.