It’s been a rough week. I’ve struggled with flat characters and wondering why. The reason worries me. Having characters that have no emotion says more about me than I wish it to. But that is my goal this year…give my characters emotions and likability. Even if that means I end up in further therapy.
In the meantime, here’s chapter 8 of Ride for Life…
He woke to vibrations in his pants pocket. At first, he thought of his more emotive half requesting his attention. As it continued and he transitioned into full consciousness, he realized his other half lay still. It was his phone ringing.
Sitting up, he wondered what time it was. The tiny studio apartment came with only one window, but the blinds were drawn. The light fixture above him blinded his sleepy eyes.
“Hello?” His voice was gruff with leftover unconsciousness. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello?”
“Oh my God,” a voice whispered. “Thank God you answered. I’ve been trying for an hour. You have to come home right now.”
The emotions in his back pocket flickered as his instincts kicked in, “Mama?”
“Who else,” she bellowed before cutting back into desperate whispers. “Who else, you selfish bastard?”
“Mama, you know I hate that word.”
“That’s just it. He’s back.”
His emotions pinched at his backside. With his free hand he rubbed the sleep off his face trying to find the words to spit out.
“What do you mean he’s back, mama?”
“That fucking shit of man. He came by. He’s pissed I’m with someone else.”
“What? No. That’s not possible. He’s…”
“Don’t call me a liar. What if he comes back? I’m afraid he’ll do something stupid. You have to come home. I’m scared.”
“What? What do I do?”
“Is he there now?”
“No. But I’m afraid he’ll come back. And when he does, oh my God.”
“Is your current boyfriend there with you?”
Her voice shot up out of whispers, “The fuck do you mean current?”
What little energy he had as his muscles came to life he used to hold back a sigh.
“Your boyfriend. Is he there with you now?”
“No. Of course not.”
Kid was confused by this comment since he knew that only two days ago her most recent boyfriend lived on her couch. He looked around the room for a clock out of habit, but he had no clock with which to look to for the time. He took a deep breath before continuing.
“Are you at home?”
“Of course I am. Where the hell else would I be?”
“Where is your boyfriend?”
“He’s in bed.”
“And where are you, mama?”
“At home, I just told you. God, you’re just as dumb as he is.”
For a moment Kid questioned if she referred to her boyfriend or his father.
“No, where exactly are you at home? In the kitchen? In the bedroom with your boyfriend?”
“Fuck no. Stop this. You need to come home right now. He’s coming back. Oh my God, I think I heard something outside.”
“Go wake up your boyfriend. He’s a big enough guy. He can protect you until the police get there.”
“You know I can’t. If he finds out I’m cheating on him with your father, he’ll…”
“You’re what,” he rose his voice involuntarily, regretting it the moment it ebbed from his lips.
“Oh, don’t act like you don’t know. Now help me please. I think he’s coming up the drive.”
“You have to call the police.”
“I can’t. I’m too scared.”
“Fine. I’m hanging up, mama. I’ll call the police and call you right back. OK?”
“No, no, no. Don’t do that.”
“Mama, you’re in danger. The police can help you. You need to…”
“You need to come home, now. Help me please.”
“Call the police.”
Her voice sounded defeated, but he knew the subtleties of her tone. The alcohol in her system was giving in to his reasoning. The emotions in his pocket calmed somewhat.
“So, when I hang up the phone, I can trust you’ll call the police.”
“Yes, yes. Of course. I’m so scared.”
“Me too, mama. But they can help.”
“OK, honey. You always know what to do.”
“Call me back as soon as you get off the phone with the police. Please.”
“I will. Thanks, dear.”
With that, his mother’s line died. He let his head fall back against his futon. His whole body ached from sleeping on the floor and the stress pressed upon him in the last twenty-four hours.
Both hands rubbed his cheeks and eyes awake. When he opened his eyes again, he was looking upward. To the right, he saw his blinds. Through the cracks he could tell the sun still had not risen. It was still dark.
“What the hell,” he asked aloud to his room.
Peering at his phone for the time he saw it was only four-thirty in the morning. Anger would have awoken the emotions in his pocket were he not concerned for the wellbeing of mother. If it were true that father had returned, mother was in great danger. Then again, she usually listened to Kidd’s line of reasoning once he calmed her down enough to listen to him in the first place. He hated her hurtful ways, but she was still his mother. And she needed him.
The distinct sound of alcohol laced her voice, but that did not delete the problem of father returning. As big a man as her current boyfriend was, and as disturbed as he clearly was, he had no chance against Kid’s father. Simple lack of empathy or fear makes one more dangerous than the strongest, best trained soldier. Kid knew this first hand. If his father returned, she might not make it to the hospital this time.
He tried to pace his apartment, but found himself doing little more than walking in a circle. Exhaustion overpowered many senses, still he could not sleep. Instead, he played out possible scenarios over and over in his mind. None ended well. Most ended with her laying in a pool of her own fluid and filth. Happier ones ended with her relatively clean and on life supports. It would not be the first time she was in that position. So Kid knew the threats were both substantial and plausible.
Out of need to drill these images out of his skull, he pulled open his solitary cupboard. Two plastic plates, two cups, a half case of Ramen noodles, and nothing else.
Sight of his plastic ware in couples brought back images of mother screaming in terror. It was her idea to have two of everything in his new apartment.
“Just in case I come visit,” she told him as he hopped in the cab headed for the airport.
Ramen for breakfast, he thought. Could be worse, I suppose.
As he set water to boil he went to what the complex manager claimed as a bathroom. It housed a toilet sitting off its foundation, a walk-in shower, and a metal sink basin. He undressed.
Cold showers erased the outside world, at least momentarily. Fear washed down the drain in rivers. He stopped asking if cold showers truly washed away the pain or if being naked separated himself further from his folded up emotional side.
Well rinsed, he leaned down to the shower’s base for a travel bottle of shampoo. He watched the lather building between his rubbing hands as if it were his first time witnessing such events unfold. Anything to keep thoughts of what could be happening, situations out of his control, out of his mind.
I shouldn’t have left. She needs me.
His eyes closed, he scrubbed his scalp raw. The harder he rubbed the further the dark thoughts drifted from sight.
It’s been ten years. What the hell made him come back tonight? There wasn’t so much as a peep from that son of a bitch.
He rubbed a bar of soap across his skin on autopilot. A circle of lather built around his bony chest but nowhere else.
Jesus. I bet he knew I was leaving. Not that I was ever a threat to him. But now mama’s completely vulnerable. He knows I can’t do anything from here. He knew.
This thought lingered as he let the shower head rain down on him. At least he could control that much.
God, I hope she’s alright. I shouldn’t have left.
Kid drove up to the small office building where he met the man otherwise known as John Birmingham almost twenty-four hours earlier. Thoughts of his mother’s well being hammered away at his psyche as he had little else to occupy it that morning. She might already be dead. It was possible she was confronting him at that very moment. Even if he wanted to, he could do nothing. He checked his phone for the time. Four hours passed since his last communication with mother.
The secretary at the front entrance pointed him in the direction of his boss’ office. The door was closed. He knocked.
“Come in,” bellowed the familiar voice, his smile still present in his tone.
Kid opened the door with trepidation. Though their meeting was planned prior, he still felt as though he intruded since the door was closed. It was probably closed for a reason. But when his boss saw who knocked, he shot up and his smiled widened, were such possible.
“Kid. I’m glad you came.”
Kid heard a distinct suggestion of pure surprise he did not expect.
He asked me to come. Why is he so surprised?
His boss waited for him to sit before finding his way back to his own seat. For an office chair, Kid found himself sitting up straight and rather tall. Neither by themselves or together did these oddities feel uncomfortable. However, something about its height left a sense of wonder. Then, when his boss sat, he dipped quite low, almost disappearing behind his desk. Kid fought back urges to cock an eyebrow. He swallowed it all instead.
“You were quiet yesterday during our Intake meeting.” Kid did not respond. Disappointment itched at his folded self as his boss spoke critical of his first few hours on the job. As if he read Kid’s thoughts, “Oh, don’t let me discourage you. I mean nothing negative by it. Those who get into our profession are notoriously passive characters. We are almost always terrible self-advocates. It’s in our blood.”
Uncertain if his boss truly meant what he said or if he only backpedaled to quell his discouragement, he remained silent. To some degree, his smile softened, furthering confusion.
“Just know that in our line of work, our main purpose is to advocate for others.” He started fiddling with a desktop sand garden no larger than a book. His thoughts appearing to wander as he spoke. It was as if he spoke to no one in particular. “That puts us in a precarious position to stand up for others when we naturally won’t stand up for ourselves.”
His boss’ attention seemed to ebb in and out of the room. The rake drew parallel lines in all directions. Somehow, though, the tiny grains of sand made no sound. His smile faded into the lined sand.
“Now, I have no doubt you will advocate for Mr. Birmingham at the drop of a hat. That much was clear by your respect for him yesterday.” The sand garden drew Kid’s attention into it. With utmost delicacy, the long haired boss placed the small wooden rake in its perch. “That said, I sense you have questions you’re struggling not to ask.”
The sudden realization that his boss could see things in him that only he thought he could see in other people brought a certain sense of admiration for the smiling man. His statement was accurate. He did have questions; questions he did not think he should ask. Rather than respond, he gave a slight nod.
“Everything about your job requires you ask the right questions to the right people at the right time.” Pausing to allow Kid to inhale his comment, “Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“I think so,” he whispered.
“Good.” The happy man leaned back in his chair nearly disappearing underneath his desk. Only his smile and long gray hair remained afloat. “Ask away, Kid. Ask away. I have a feeling you’re among understanding company.”
This last comment sounded unusual, though he could not pinpoint why. He bit his lip as he thumbed through all his many questions that came to him over the previous day. Where should he start? With his client’s identity? His past? The missing light bulbs? His inability to speak Sign Language and therefore not understand his only client? Something else bubbled up and fell out of his mouth.
“Yesterday,” his voice trailed off.
“Well, you see, the Intake Physician kept calling Mr. Birmingham ‘individual’ rather than client.”
An obvious look of accomplishment grew into the man’s smile. “Go on.”
Kid scratched his scalp searching for how to ask a question he knew not how to ask. “I’m not sure. I know current theory pushes for ‘person-centered’ terminology. This organization uses the word ‘individual’ in all its official documentation.”
“That is true.”
He bit his lip again fearing confrontation with his new boss, “Then why did you keep correcting Mr. Birmingham’s doctor?”
His back pocket twitched with discomfort. Confrontations never ended well. However, his boss had encouraged it. Then again, so did father. During the silence, his phone buzzed in his pocket. His face warmed.
“I’m not sure exactly how to answer that, Kid.”
He knew it. He had overstepped his boundary as a subordinate. Less than two days into a new life, a life that gambled everything on big payouts and fabulous prizes. Now he gave it all up on a single failure. Mother was right. He could not cut it as a professional. He was nothing. She called just then to tell him so but he had not answered.
“However, as observant as you clearly are, I’m certain you’ll figure it out on your own if I don’t just come out and say it. So here it is.” He leaned in interlocking his fingers and placed his hands on his desk ahead of him. “Why does our organization use that term, ‘individual’?”
“Because it’s person-centered.”
“That is the reason, but is it really?”
“If we didn’t use ‘individual’, what term do you think we’d use?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Take a guess.”
“Exactly.” His arms shot up. He dropped back into his chair back. Kid could not be more confused. “We’ve turned them into interchangeable words. Well, almost.”
“Let me answer your question with a question. Are you an individual?”
Kid thought about this for some time. Before yesterday, he would have said yes. He, and every other person on earth was, in fact, an individual. Individual was a word most learned at an relatively early age. But as of late, he did not know if anything he thought was true.
“No. I don’t think so, sir.”
“Correct. All this organization has done is change the term. They kept the faceless definition and gave it a new shell. ‘A rose by any other name’.”
“But you work here. And you’re management.”
“That is a conundrum. Isn’t it?” His smile reemerged with fervor.
“Then what should I call him?”
“Who? Mr. Birmingham?”
“What’s wrong with calling him by his name?”
What was wrong with calling him by his name? Only the fact that John Birmingham was not John Birmingham. The absurdity of his comment seemed not to be lost by him as he raised his eyebrows in apparent begging for Kid to engage his comment. He did not. The room remained quiet for a time.
“This is not Mr. Birmingham’s first intake.”
“That’s a statement of fact. Not a question.” Kid could tell his boss was being playful. He, too, allowed himself to smile, though it felt wrong and withered away.
“You ask the tough questions, Kid. I like that. Great things are in store for you.” Rather than respond, he waited for his boss to continue. Compliments left his emotional half twitching.
“Problem is, you know what I know.” Kid deflated. “No. No. Don’t misunderstand. That doesn’t mean you asked the wrong question. It just means your boss doesn’t always have the answers. But I sense this is is unsettling to you. So ask your next question.”
“Well, to tell you the truth, sir, I don’t understand how I’m suppose to work with Mr. Birmingham if I can’t speak Sign Language.”
“You two seemed to understand each other just fine yesterday.”
Kid shrugged. Their level of understanding fell somewhere between barely and almost. Hardly enough for anyone with power over a person’s life.
“What else? You look uncomfortable.”
Kid chewed on his lower lip a moment.
“To be honest, sir, I am.”
“You’re sitting so low. I feel like I’m sitting so far above you.”
He bellowed a cavernous laugh that split the room. Kid wondered what was so funny. The boss fell back again into the abyss of his chair back.
“I’ve had this office set up this way for years now, and you’re the first to bring it up. At least to my attention anyway.”
The room seemed to shrink as the boss let the comment fade into the walls.
“People trying to appear powerful use intimidation.”
Kid knew this well but did not know how this connected to his current discomfort. He waited.
“Business Execs will place themselves in tall chairs and place what they consider their opposition in lower more uncomfortable chairs across from them.” He appeared to wait to let what he said sink into Kid’s skin before continuing. “That’s tactics of the weak. When I see that, I know I’ve already won.”
“So, am I, the opponent?”
His echoing laugh thundered louder than his earlier laugh.
“Absolutely not,” he retorted, still pulling his chuckles under control. “People show their weakness when they force a false sense of power.”
Kid’s intrigue peaked. His boss seemed to understand humans almost as well as he did. This tiny piece of information, however, he did not know, and had never considered.
“Then why am I still sitting so much taller than you?”
His boss wiped a tear of laughter away from his wrinkled eyes. Tightening his pulled back hair, he cocked his head slightly.
“I like those I speak with to think they are in control.”
That comment fell to the floor and disappeared into nothing. Kid bit at his cheek as he contemplated his bosses comments. Was he telling him that he liked most people to believe they were in control of their conversation? Was he saying he wanted all those in his office to believe they were in control? If so, was he suggesting he wanted Kid to believe he was in control? If so, why did he just share that information?
It was then that the long haired boss stood, seeming to tower over everything juxtaposed to how low he sat during the rest of their discussion. When he turned facing away from Kid, he appeared as a different person altogether. His smile was such a part of the man’s being, that not seeing it changed his very being. He appeared older, more tired. With his back turned, a voice Kid assumed belonged to his boss sounded out.
“I sense that’s not your last question though.”
“Well, actually, sir, there was one thing.”
“It’s my understanding John Birmingham is not Mr. Birmingham’s real name. What is his real name?”
He reached for a large thick book and turned back toward Kid. His smile had transitioned into an equally happy but definitively crooked smirk. Relief tickled Kid’s emotional half to recognize the man in front of him again. Handing the large textbook to Kid, he read its cover. It was a Sign Language dictionary.
“Thanks.” Kid was not certain if his boss heard him or if he simply ignored his question. Using flipping through the dictionary to pull his eyes away, he collected enough strength to ask again, “Who is Mr. Birmingham?”
“This book will open many doors, Kid.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you. I’ll start working on it today.”
He wanted desperately to ask again. The answer he sought felt just out of reach. His boss knew, and he knew he knew. However, with the sense that the long haired man did not share on purpose, he left it alone.
“That’s that for today, Kid.” He slapped Kid on his shoulder a couple times, hard. “Oh, wait. I almost forgot. Here’s an EBT card for Mr. Birmingham.” Kid was certain he saw his boss wink, but only faintly. “He’ll need some food. Sugar and pasta are far from recommended for sustenance.”
Then Kid witnessed something he did not think possible. The man’s smile wavered. Only for a briefest moment, but of everything that happened in the span of their short conversation, he knew what he saw. They left their meeting at that.
The long haired man asked Kid to close the door behind him. As he did, he heard a loud sigh from the otherwise ever-happy man. His internship mentor had been correct, everyone comes into this field because of their large heart. The problem becomes protecting that tender heart from the constant beatings from situations one must see but have little control over. Since his heart had already been beaten into submission, he did not care about his own.
Kid wanted to reenter his boss’ office to tell him everything would be fine, but he could not know such things for certain. He also could not bring himself to acknowledge what his boss had done so well to hide from everyone else. It was something he attempted on a regular basis.
His smile seemed so genuine though.