I was seven the first time I met Mr. de la Cruz. Well, actually, it wasn’t until later that I actually met the man, but I would say I became acquainted with him at the age of seven.
When I was younger, St. Raphael’s used to hold a fundraising carnival in the church parking lot once a year. Pops would always take me- it was one of few times I could ever remember him going out of his way for something I wanted. My favorite ride at that point was still the merry go round, but Nicky Sparks, who I had elected to bring along with me that night, had already matured onto swinging ships, roller coasters, and generally every ride that made me sick to my stomach.
“My ma gave me ten dollars, so that way we can go on that pirate ship at least three times, maybe even four if we want but we also gotta do the Runaway Mouse a couple of times because those turns almost make you fall out your seat-and I call end on the first one! Then you can have it the second time and we can rotate after and oh yeah! When we go on the pirate ship we gotta sit all the way at the top because then we get to go higher and higher and higher…”
He went on like that for most of the car ride, and steadily Nicky’s imagery began to torture my already panicking mind.
“Alex, it really makes you feel like you’re gonna fall off!”
And that feeling had already begun. My disoriented mind was overwhelmed by fear and a distinct feeling of nausea had crept into my stomach. As Pops took turns at twenty miles per hour, I hung on for dear life to anything I could grab on to. The door handle was soon covered with my perspiration, and I could feel a cold sweat comprised of dread and trepidation begin to soil my body.
“And don’t forget to lean forward when the ship swings to the top,” said Nicky from the back seat, oblivious to my frightful quandary.
Pops wasn’t though. And with hardened, determined eyes we began accelerating to forty around turns.
The last time it happened was two weeks ago. Not that this was anything out of the ordinary, as it had happened at least four times a year since the day in seventh grade when Adam had proudly walked up to James Bishop and told him he liked him, but this time was especially heinous.
It was always something small that set it off; I could never rightly predict a “fight” as they called it, or an assault, as we all really knew it to be. Maybe they were just bored, or something was going on at home. All I know is the Urban twins, Louis and Raymond, would all of a sudden find an excuse to draw their bodies up close to Adam and start generously pelting him with spit rockets and strictures.
This time was no different, and I could see a resolution in Adam’s eyes that was almost able to block out how petrified he really was. Almost. I could still see his fright, but over the years it had matured into an acquiescent acceptance of what was to come.
At first it was routine, the customary procedure, and nothing out of the ordinary. Adam’s back was pressed up against his locker, and Louis and Raymond stood flanking him, each possessing a sneer eerily similar to Pops’. Adam was stretching his lanky sixteen-year-old frame up tall, his neck raised back and his chin up. He was scrunching his nose tight, and I could tell he was trying to avoid the putrid breath of the twins.
“Look at the fucking traitor,” Raymond was saying. “Sticks and stones will break his bones, ‘cause words will never change him.”
He thought this was so original, and his devilish smile increased.
“That’s all for now though,” said Louis, “But we’ll see ya later, I’m sure buddy.” He patted Adam hard on the shoulder so that his trembling knees buckled and he collapsed on the floor. They walked away laughing.
When we got to the carnival, Nicky bolted straight for the ticket window, while I slogged along in his shadow with Pops towering over me. I could feel his gaze on my back, tacitly coercing my unwilling legs toward Nicky, who was cavorting forty yards away under the ticket booth, jumping from one foot to the other and waiting for Pops to saunter over and purchase the tickets.
“No merry go round tonight,” said Pops abruptly.
I had already known this of course, but hearing his vicious voice cut through the cool night and into my body made me shiver. I turned around, hoping to implore him into compassion.
“P-Pops, please?” I mumbled, my mouth quivering with fear and my eyes fixed on the ground, avoiding Pops’ punishing gaze. I couldn’t avoid it entirely though, as their palpable energy seared straight through me.
“What did you say boy?” he demanded. “Speak up and look at your father when you address him.”
“P-Pops, can I please g-go on the, on the m-m-merry go round? I don’t like those o-other rides,” I said, cautiously lifting my head up halfway and taking nervous glances up into his face every few seconds. It took me a while to get all these words out, as I was still murmuring and stuttering incessantly.
Pops grabbed my arm tightly, yanking me the remaining twenty yards toward Nicky.
“It’s time for you to grow up and stop being such a faggot,” he seethed.
That increased my terror exponentially. I didn’t know what those words meant, but the vindictive way he said them told me I would be spending my night trembling in dread and trying not to puke.
As I watched Adam struggle to his feet, his decrepit, clammy hands pathetically groping for the handle of his locker, I felt a wave of nausea crash into me. I was used to the regimented amount of unsolicited punishment he endured, day in and day out, and yet every time I bore witness to it, it still made me bilious and embarrassed.
Adam finally located the handle of his locker, and held on for dear life while he tried to pull himself up. It took him three tries, as his defective legs needed some time to regain their composure. I could see the confused fear overtaking his mind. Cold sweat stained his shirt, and the locker handle was slick and shiny with his perspiration.
There was a semicircle of kids surrounding him, but no one moved forward to help him up; after all who knew if the Urban twins had really left yet?
Adam made it back up to his feet, and I was struck by how he seemed to tower over the halo of bodies surrounding him. He had a resolute look on his face, one that implied complete confidence mixed with stout mettle and an infrangible backbone of faith that when all stirred together produced a lustrous radiance that was so startling it caused some of the onlookers to stumble backwards with confusion.
That’s at least what I saw, though I have to admit I didn’t have the greatest view. I was in the corner, curled up against the wall trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The last thing I wanted was to be drawn into all of this.
My anxiety didn’t seem to temper Nicky’s enthusiasm, or even to dull it. As we stood in line for the pirate ship and he clamored on about strategies for riding, I was contemplating strategies for survival. Stupidly, I scanned the area for potential escape routes, but all I found were two smiling mannequin pirates at the front of the ride, flanking me and leering as I moved as far back on the railing as I could without falling off. They were carrying bright silver swords, and were poised to attack at any time.
The ride ended, and the line shuffled forward. I approached these two baleful buccaneers apprehensively. Mercifully, they let me pass, and I proceeded underneath them and took a seat at the back of the ship, where Nicky had kindly reminded me we needed to sit to go higher and higher and higher…
The ship began to rock back and forth, slowly at first, but gradually increasing in speed and height. My mind, already swimming with fear, began to rock with the ship, swaying at first from the small waves, then being tossed around as those waves churned heavier, faster, and higher. With each tumble, the distance grew further, the speed augmented, and the air screamed past my ears louder and louder.
We reached the top, and I was thrown overboard, tossed into a sea of hysteria, an abyss of torment. My face was parallel to the ground, and I was looking straight down at the cold, hard pavement. I ceased to swim; my mind was drowning in terror, my body convulsing to try and keep it afloat.
And then we were falling. And, just when it seemed like I would be introduced to the pavement, I was spared, only for the ship to take me up again to continue the cycle, higher and higher and higher…
I stepped off in a daze.
“Fun, huh?” said Pops.
I mumbled something about going to the bathroom and staggered off toward the Porta Johns on the other side of the lot. Behind me, Pops had his arm around Nicky, casually chattering away as if they were the oldest of friends. Pops’ loose, easy laugh at Nicky’s words stalked me across the pavement, mixing with the stagnant, persisting rush of wind through my ears to form a sickness I couldn’t contain for much longer.
Adam drifted through the side doors of our high school, clutching his books, papers, and emotions tight to his chest and out of harm’s way. I was relaxing across the parking lot on the back steps of the library, lying back with my head propped up on my backpack and a book resting on my knees. I’d been sitting like this going on almost two hours since school ended, just reading and thinking about all sorts of things. My eyes followed him as he crossed the schoolyard. I was curious to why he had still been in the building so late, and made to wave him over to talk. He didn’t notice me though, and just kept trudging along with his head down and eyes averted from the world. As he slogged through the wet grass and trekked across the basketball courts, I had the sudden, irresistible urge to call out to him, to warn him, and to protect him from imminent dangers I knew nothing about, yet were an intimate part of my life.
He continued on through the parking lot, past the brick wall where one would normally find amiable young children laughing as they scampered across the lot, immersed in their game of stickball. But it was barren now. The only evidence that remained of these innocent, carefree games was a lonely bat, lying forgotten in the dirt. A few stray tennis balls, having given up their fight long ago, succumbed to the swirling wind and allowed it to drag them helter-skelter across the parking lot, resigned to the fact they were powerless to break free. The wall was spray painted with a giant box conscribing an X that was meant for a strike zone, but now loomed ominously like a target, with Adam well within range.
Then the stones started to fly. I shot up in surprise, and my book jolted off my lap, tumbling down the steps. The first one hit him in the shoulder, causing his body to contort as it fell to the ground. The next two missed, but the forth collided with a sickening thud into the side of Adam’s head, just above his ear. It fell alongside him, stained red before it hit the ground.
Then the Urban twins were there, brandishing thick, long sticks. They beat Adam efficiently and systematically. One would bring his branch down with a dulled clunk, while the other raised his up with two hands toward the heavens, devilish smile on his face, ready to bring it down once the other had finished in his duty. They did this no more than three times each before rapidly retreating back behind the tennis courts.
It had all happened in less than twenty seconds, and I doubted anybody else had bore witness to it except for me. The only evidence that remained, besides Adam’s broken body, was a few leaves and twigs that had broken off of the twins’ branches and fallen to the ground. They surrounded Adam’s head, forming a conspicuous coronet of bracts and birch.
I sat there, debating whether or not to go over and help his limp body up. I mean, my heart certainly wanted to, but my intellect correctly pointed out that if I did, Adam would know I had seen the whole thing. Then, all kinds of dangerous situations began to present themselves. Like having to talk to the police and principal, telling them what Louis and Raymond had done- maybe even having to testify if Adam wanted to press charges. And most unnerving of all, taking over for Adam as the preeminent object of the Urban’s continuous wrath.
So I just stayed there, choosing a painful conscience over a painful body.
I made it all the way to the Porta Johns; only trouble was I didn’t make it all the way into the Porta Johns. I had stumbled across the parking lot in a doubled over sprint. My left leg took the lead, with my right dragging along just trying to keep up. I was hunched over, as if my arms were grabbing some intangible object and drawing it close into my bosom to shield it from the world.
I reached the Porta John and extended my hand towards those few square feet of refuge. This plebian little toilet, with dark brown stains running down its walls and the distinct stench of decaying urine radiating from the inside had been transformed into my sanctuary. It was a place I could unload- not only my churning stomach, but everything else that I had been forced to hide from Pops. Even if it would be for only a few seconds, I could shut the door of that stall, and within those four walls I could be the scared little kid I was. I was tired of trying to be someone I was not, of accepting things I found wrong, and letting fear control me.
But just because I was tired of being controlled didn’t mean I would emancipate myself. I was still scared, and I knew as I reached for the door those next few moments would be my only moments of peace, and that once I got back outside it would all be back to normal.
But as I said, I never did get into my sanctuary. When I reached out my hand to open the door, I found it was locked. And in that instant, I realized I couldn’t hold my stomach down any longer and puked right on the spot- just as a tall, burly man unlatched the door and stepped out.
Chunks of it rained down on his white pants. He leaped back in shock, limiting the damage somewhat but causing the vomit to start dripping down my shirt. I looked up at this man and gave him the same pleading look I’d given Pops when he told me I couldn’t go on the merry go round that night, fully expecting him to lash into me with the same fury as Pops had. But his face, rather than moving from shock to rage, made a transition I hadn’t thought possible to that point. After all, I had never really met any other grown ups outside of Pops, and I had kinda figured they were all as callused as he, all infused with the same bitterness and indignation at the world. And because they couldn’t lash out at the world, they would cling to me. But no matter how hard I tried, my behavior always managed to remind them of whatever it was they hated so much. And so I became their metaphorical punching bag. But this man’s face mellowed into concern, and what was more, a concern for me.
“Son, are you okay?” Son. I was too stunned to answer. He must’ve took my silence to mean I was still feeling nauseous.
“Where are your parents?” he asked gently. I glanced back towards the pirate ship. Pops was nowhere in sight. As my gaze returned to the man, a strange, foreign feeling of relief surged through my body. It was as fleeting as it was unfamiliar, and when it left and I had returned to my usual state of exhausted anxiety I could only mumble “I’m not sure” before my eyes retreated back to the pavement.
“Come,” he said, picking me up off the ground and carrying me over to the nearest drink stand. His touch was gentle, as if he was carrying some invaluable, priceless antique he valued more than his life. My body felt the warmth of his hands caressing me into a feeling of safety. He was careful not to let the vomit on his pants touch me, but disregarded the stains on my shirt that were making his white polo orange.
“You need some water, and a comfortable place to lay down,” he told me with a reassuring smile. “You’re going to be okay.”
We reached the drink stand, but there was a pretty sizeable line. The man elbowed his way toward the front, shouting to the lady running the stand for a bottle of water.
“Please ma’am, the boy is sick. Could we get some water?”
She looked up, startled at the urgency in his voice. Around us, people were stepping back, waving their hands in front of their noses and grumbling about the smell. Not wanting to face their disappointment, I nestled my face deeper into the man’s chest, taking in the clashing aroma of regurgitated steak and cologne.
“Oh!” she exclaimed in shock. “Poor boy, of course!” She turned abruptly towards the cooler, knocking over a bottle of mustard in her haste. As she bent down to grab some water, the man turned to the crowd.
“Anyone know whose boy this is? We can’t find his parents.”
I emerged from my refuge to scan the sea of faces surrounding us, but the overwhelming stench of vomit quickly caused me to dive back into the safety of his shirt. The hair poking out from underneath the unbuttoned collar brushed against my face, and as I closed my eyes and burrowed deeper into his chest his comforting scent washed back over me.
“Isn’t that Hunter’s kid?” a voice asked.
“Think so,” came the gruff reply.
The man holding me moved towards the voices, reaching out his hand.
“Antonio de la Cruz,” he said. “You know his pops?”
I felt my body sway up and down as Mr. de la Cruz shook hands with the two strangers. A familiar feeling of nausea swept over me.
“Yeah that’s Alex,” said one of the men. He paused to spit, and I could smell the tobacco on his breath as he examined me. “I’ll go find Hunter.”
By the time he had sauntered off, the bottle of water had reached us. I felt a gentle nudge on my shoulder, and when I looked up Mr. de la Cruz was deftly unscrewing the cap with one hand while still supporting me with the other. I could feel his grip on my body slipping.
“I’m gonna put you down for a second, okay Alex?” he said.
His voice came from far off. I was once again standing alone on the ground. Supporting my own weight. Slipping.
He bent over me.
“You need to drink Alex. You will feel much better if you do. I promise. Here.”
He brought the bottle to my lips, tilting it slightly so the water poured out in a steady stream. As it sloshed through my mouth, my lips cracked, and the taste of vomit returned. Above, the stars flickered down upon the parking lot, shining through the crisp fall air. The breeze had picked up, sending a chill through the crowd and causing a single brown leaf to float lazily up towards the bell tower of the church. As it settled on the roof, the bells tolled loudly, signaling the end of the carnival.
When Pops found us, he didn’t say much. Just scowled at Mr. de la Cruz and told him he didn’t want a man like that hanging around his kid. I barely had time to see the hurt flash across his face before Pops scooped me up and carried me back to the truck.
It took Adam a good five minutes to get up. By then, I had already fled beneath the canopy of trees that lined the back entrance of the library. Leaves crunched under my feet as I walked towards the creek, and the forest draped over me, choosing to shelter me rather than batter my body with its sticks. I stopped just long enough to see Adam limp off. He was clutching the left side of his ribcage with both hands, and his gait was uneven. After walking about ten steps, he stopped and turned, staring back towards the woods. Removing one hand from his side, he put it above his eyes to shield them from the sun and squinted in my direction. How long he stood like that, I don’t know. I had put my head down and didn’t pick it back up until the sound of flowing water grew louder and louder and I felt the creek running between my toes.
Looking up, I saw that the stream was starting to become overgrown with brush. Green leaves poked out across the water as if reaching towards each other in desperate search of a connection with their brothers on the opposite bank. I kicked off my sandals and rolled up a joint, trying to tell myself that I wasn’t like them. That I was different than Adam and Mr. de la Cruz. Pushing any conflicting thoughts to the back of my mind, I closed my eyes, rested my head on my backpack, and listened to the birds chirp above me. I could almost hear Nicky’s voice as I drifted away, higher and higher and higher…
About the Author:
Jonah B. Finn currently works in the Middle East, traveling frequently and writing as he does. He is a graduate of Colgate University and is originally from New Jersey.