Under the Earth
They plastered the posters everywhere.
“Send. Them. Home.”
Cracked, creased, and worn, they swept in and out of the legs of children playing ball in the streets. They littered the walls, the profiles of mothers and fathers, farmers and entrepreneurs staring back, a bounty thrust on their head. Whipping in the wind, posters on the surface suffocated those far beneath and the charred remains of the towers, broken down to only a few stories, projected the faces of the missing alongside the mugs of the abhorrent.
The city’s eyes stayed open through the night and Lady Liberty stood firm at America’s border, no longer a beacon to a better future but a torch chasing you home. My father encouraged it, yelling from the comfort of his recliner. He sat on the edge, shoes off, undershirt untucked, pointing his finger at the television.
“Look at her. She stands for freedom. I did not raise you, work for your food and your education, to live in a world where my neighbor speaks gibberish. It’s treason, to take out from under us the values and traditions that built this country.”
I used to argue with him. Long, spitting tirades over and through our frozen dinners. My mother, elbows on her knees, cried for us to stop. She would reach for my hand and squeeze, begging me not to rile my father any further. As I grew older, I understood. She was the one that had to share a room with him when we went to bed, not me. I moved soon after, ceasing the arguments. I chose New York City via New Orleans, Nashville, and Philadelphia, catching snippets of my mother’s anguish through choppy, vague text messages.
It was in the city that I met Pots. He introduced himself, scrubber in one hand and the other outstretched.
“Put ‘er there.” He grabbed my hand and let go only after he had introduced me to three regulars, two cooks, and the special of the day. “Olive You Anchovies.”
Thirty years of beers in his belly and a joke on his tongue, he owned Pizza by the Pound on 5th Ave. His mother named him Bastion and I saw letters marked to him in that name but he never used it.
“A birth name can be traced,” he told me. He would throw the letters in the trash, whole and unopened. Standing a solid foot over anyone, battalions took orders from his arms and you could get lost in the forest sprouting from his face. It was a mystery how none of it found its way into the food but every man earns a nickname and Pots secured his by mere geography.
“I stick in the back mostly.” I hadn’t asked. “I let the pretty ones stand up here.” He put his arm around his cashier. A seasoned lady with a chip on her shoulder and smoke in her hair. “You can’t find ‘em like this one.” She grunted.
Pots found me a place to live, supplied me with a few contacts for work, and even let me run errands for him and Pidge, a regular and a curious fellow with an eye for books. Pidge posed as my references, faking three Jersey accents as my “former manager,” “professor,” and “supervisor” when the phone calls poured in. I secured a job at PS 51 sweeping floors and cleaning graffiti.
Between shifts, I checked into Pots’ place daily in search of a cigarette and a good conversation. Pots promised both and delivered on time. He opened in 1992, drunk on the high of a clever idea and never closed. It was a fine place to do business as well. You need something, Pots knows a guy. You want something, call this number. But he had his rules: no guns, no outside food, and keep your ID in your pocket.
“The scanner’s broken,” he told me when I pushed through the door on New Year’s Eve.
Wires sprouted from the scanner’s belly. The screen wore a spider web crack but the tiny green light pulsed with vigor.
“Please scan your ID,” it instructed.
Pots stepped out from behind the counter, raised his hand and smacked the top of the scanner. The green light disappeared.
“I put in a request to the city for a new one but they keep sending them broken ones.”
I put my ID back in my pocket. Pots knew the risk he took. The penalty for harboring an illegal was more severe than being one. They deported illegals with a ticket in their pocket and a kick in their ass but those that harbored illegals received jail, or sometimes even worse, death. Pots sneered at the risk and his patrons, a mix of rumors and paper trails, were grateful for it.
Pidge danced out of the kitchen holding a television. He threw it on the counter, stretching the power cord to a nearby outlet. Pots untangled the rabbit ears and tried to drown out the advice from the choir.
“More left. Hold it. Still fuzzy but I think I can make out a building.”
“That’s not a building, it’s a man.”
“Whatever it is, it’s lit up like a Christmas tree. Try some foil. Helped last year.”
Smoke traveled through the air, making nests in pockets of the booths. Duct tape covered rips in the vinyl and held together legs. Cheap frames highlighted pictures of the twin towers on the wall and Christmas music made last-gasp efforts from speakers in the corner. The shop clamored with life and waitresses bustled from table to table, collecting plates and filling drinks. Pots intertwined the ears and the picture of the tv came into focus. Cheers roared from all corners of the shop and the city blushed on the screen, taking a bow amid all its lights and decorations. Pots raised his hands and the signal flew through the shop. Patrons held themselves in anticipation.
“I want to say.” He paused. Still holding his hands up, he fought back sniffles. “I want to say thank you. You all.” He pointed to us. “You are the reason I keep my doors open.”
A few raised their glasses.
“This world changed three years ago. It changed and we must carry on. To health, and happiness and all that shit. But most of all.” He took a deep breath. “To home.”
Murmurs of agreement filled the shop and those with drinks tossed them back. Pots turned up the volume on the tv and leaned on the counter, rubbing a towel between his hands. He motioned for me to come over.
“I got a job, you got time?” he asked.
I nodded. “School’s been out a week and my pockets are drying up.”
“Go where the green is, that’s what I say.” He reached down below the counter and slid a small present over the edge and into my hands. “This is going to a Mrs. Clements. She lives up above the pottery place on 63rd. You know it right?”
“Yeah, I know it. Brick building. Tommy Villa used to live there.”
“That’s the one. She’s in apartment 41B. Needs it before tomorrow. Think you can handle it?”
I grabbed the bag and hugged it inside my jacket pocket. “No problem.”
“Good. Send her my regards.”
I gave a wave and stopped at the cashier on the way out. Handing her a few tired bills, she slid them into the tray and tapped a picture hanging off the register.
“Have you seen this girl?”
The square, faded picture showed Pots and a girl leaning into his shoulder. They stood outside his shop, leaves to their ankles.
I shook my head. “Sorry,” I said. “Who is she?”
The cashier counted bills. “Pots’ niece.”
I waited for more but she offered nothing else. Smoke buzzed around her head, wafting up towards a smoke detector six feet in the ground.
“Is she missing?” I asked.
The cashier sucked a toothpick between her lips and moved it from one side to the other. “I just asked if you had seen her. No one said anything about her missing.”
I looked closer at the picture. The walls outside of Pots shop, normally littered with the posters of illegals, was clean. The front door was different too. Solid with a single window. Pots lacked facial hair and grinned from ear to ear.
“Has her ID been logged anywhere?”
She covered the photo with her hand. “Maybe you’ve seen her, maybe you haven’t.” Handing me change, she tapped three fingers in succession over the picture letting her cigarette dangled dangerously from the edge of her lips. I threw a few bills on the table and left.
The anticipation of a new year gripped the city. Banners cut between buildings, the colors splashing against the night sky. Music roared out of windows, the celebration of new life and new hope. Lights shot straight up, sprinting towards the stars. Getting off the D train, I grew exhausted of saying “excuse me” as I squeezed through the crowds. Tidbits of Spanish and whispers of Chinese snuck through the air and dissipated. Lines for the ticket stations blocked the exit terminals and daily commuters hissed on their way out. A few shouted curses and pointed out unpatriotic aesthetics to patrols.
Following the signs for 63rd, I squeezed past a family wearing identical school-crested white shirts and blue pants. Huddled in a makeshift circle, the mother counted heads, her fingers bouncing from one child to another. They blocked the stairs and with no way around, I forced my way through procuring a few glares.
I turned but kept pushing. A boy, pudgy cheeks pushing out from his face showed me his finger. The mother squeezed her son’s shoulder and placed herself between us. I caught her eyes and they begged me to keep walking.
“I’m not dangerous lady,” I told her. A few stares started from the family and spread to nearby walkers. “I ain’t illegal either,” I said to no one and everyone. Turning, I ran up the stairs.
It had begun to storm. Shoppers raced through the rain, covering their heads with briefcases and old newspapers. Some were heading home to avoid the crowds and others running to partake in them. Leaning against a telephone booth, I slid out a cigarette and put it on my lips. I had nothing to cover myself but that was the least of my worries. “Got a light,” I muttered to a passing woman. She waved her hand and hopped over a puddle, catching the end of it. The family came up the steps, a parade of bright umbrellas bobbing along the street. They kicked the puddles and splashed one another, crossing the street out of sight.
I started down 63rd, sliding around puddles. Failing to find a light, I mimed my hand to people walking the other way. Some shook their heads. Others ignored me. I jogged to a corner drug store, holding my jacket over my head, weaving in and out people that had given up on being dry.
An elderly lady reached for the door as I did. I jumped to the side, grabbing the handle and pulled the door open.
“Thank you dear.” She patted my back in that way all grandmothers do.
“Please scan your ID,” the scanner instructed us.
The lady fumbled in her purse, pushing around the contents in waves. She placed it on a nearby counter and dug her hand in deeper.
“Please scan your ID,” it repeated.
She raised her hands in defeat. “I forgot it.” She smiled at me. “I’m always forgetting it.”
Customers turned. From the back, a manager marched forward. “You need to scan your ID ma’am.” He held his hand under the scanner showing the green line that read barcodes on his palm.
She raised her purse. “It’s not here. But I can assure you I am a citizen. My grandfather is Brooklyn through and through.” She pulled a picture from her purse. Black and white, a young man leaned on a shovel, Yankees cap snug on his head.
The manager was not taken. “No ID. No service. I ain’t serving any illegals in here.”
He forced her shoulders around and faced her back towards the door. Grabbing her purse, he shoved it into her stomach and led her back out into the rain. “You get your ID, you come back.” He turned to me wiping drops of rain from his hair. “Got an ID?” I fetched it from my pocket and held it under the scanner.
“Aaron Z. Navarro. New York City. Born in Kansas City, Missouri. 1974. Confirmed.”
He checked the picture to my face and motioned his head towards the store. “Can’t be too careful.” I grabbed a lighter and checked out. My father taught me one good lesson in life. The world doesn’t need another hero.
“All heroes die young.” Fork halfway to his mouth, he would flick it for emphasis. “They march into battle, intent on changing the world and what do they get for it.” He waited for us to answer. My mouth full of chicken, I said nothing. “Death. A bullet in their head.” He pointed and shook his finger at my mother. “Where would she be if I was rotting in the ground? Getting a job. Working hard. Taking care of your family. That’s a hero.”
I paused, lit the cigarette, and took a drag. Mrs. Clements’ apartment was a half block down and I hopped beneath awnings to stay out of the rain. The stores were empty, doors unhinged, and on occasion, a broken front window. Streetlights sputtered and died, taking the hope of the block with them. I found the steps to the apartment building and took them in stacks of three. I ran my finger down the list of names until I found, “Lements.” The “C” dead with the rest of the neighborhood. I rang the buzzer.
“Hallo,” said a timid voice.
“Mrs. Clements?” I shouted through the rain. “Mrs. Clements, my name is Aaron.”
“Yes, this is Mrs. Clements. Hallo”
“I have a package from Pots, can you open the door?” I shivered in the rain, crossing my arms across my chest.
“Yes, I know Mr. Pots.” It sounded more like “Putz.”
The door buzzed and I pulled it open, stepping inside and shaking off the rain. The raw stench of decay punched my nose. The staircase held together by rotted wood gave an escape from the dusty black and white checkered floor. Mailboxes stood in formation, overpacked and orange spray paint plastered the elevator doors, “Out of order. Walk bitch.” I pressed the button anyway. Nothing.
I resorted to the stairs, testing every step before the next. It creaked and groaned and I gripped the banister. Doors stood ajar, abandoned and left to rot. I pushed one open, peeking inside and felt more helpless than when I had come in. Gaps found homes between the floor panels. The faucet had sneezed, spreading a yellow disease down the cabinets and onto the tile and a cat scurried in the corner, receding back into the dark. I checked back out and found Mrs. Clements’ door. I knocked.
“Hallo.” I heard through the door.
“Mrs. Clements, it’s Aaron. I have your package from Pots, Mr. Pots, remember?”
I heard the rustle of voices behind the door.
“You can leave the package at the door. Thank you. Goodbye.”
“That’s not how this works, Mrs. Clements. I have to hand you the package. Look, I’m not checking IDs, okay. It’s from Mr. Pots.”
A bolt unlocked. Then another. Then another. The door slid open a few inches and a thick, strong nose, aged in a toaster, stuck out. I saw an eye. I held up the package to the door. It opened and Mrs. Clements stepped aside. “Come, come,” she motioned.
I stepped inside and she closed the door behind me, bolting the locks again. A parade of children sat on a sofa, staring at me, quiet and foreboding. Their shirts, a mess of cartoon cats and failed Super Bowl champions, clashed against the floral couch. Some of their feet failed to touch the ground.
“Let me see it, let me see it,” Mrs. Clements urged. She whipped her hand in a motion for me to hurry up.
I pulled out the present and placed it in her empty palm. She ripped it open, shedding the bits of wrapping paper on the rug. Holding out her hand, she spilled the contents into her palm. They were IDs, complete with Mrs. Clements’ face.
“Bless his hearts,” she whispered. She squeezed the IDs to her chest, taking in a long breath. She began to cry, tears welling up and releasing down her face. Fanning herself with the cards, she got herself back together.
“Wait here, dear.” She went to the kitchen. The kids stared at me, unblinking.
She returned with a container. “A gift for Mr. Pots. My famous danish dream cakes. He loves thems.” She mimed for me to hold out my hands. I did and she placed the container in them, placing her hands on top of the lid.
“Protect,” she said.
I was out the door, down the steps, and back under the rain in minutes. I stood on the steps, opened the container and smelled the cakes. The aroma hit my nose, red velvet icing mixing and blending with coconut and brown sugar. I took one out and stuffed the entire piece into my mouth. It sailed in my mouth. This cake had no equals.
“Boy, no no. Mr. Pots only.”
I looked up. Mrs. Clements, leaning out of her window, shook her finger at me. I ran off, dodging joggers and jaywalkers stuffing my mouth and licking icing off my lips.
The D train was dead. Lines snaked up the steps and out into the rain. Tourists packed the streets, hogging the taxis and forcing commuters to find detours. I began to walk, hood up, surrendering to the rain from the heavens. Walking any direction back to the shop was more favorable to waiting in line. I passed tables, dressed in movies, sunglasses, and t-shirts. Dealers trying to make a quick buck.
“It’s gonna be a hell of a year,” I heard more than once.
I cut between cars when possible, soliciting a few honks and curses. Nearing Central Park, crowds caught me off and I waited for the sign to walk. I stayed back, trying to catch some cover from the street lamps.
“Comic book mister? Real nice. Professionally drawn.”
I turned, catching a hand-stapled comic book pushed in my direction. The kid on the other end was young, long, dark hair poking out of his hoodie. He stayed in the shadows, hiding his face except for his bright white eyes.
I took the comic, “The Adventures of Alo,” and flipped through the pages. Dark-skinned, the hero wore a luchador mask, blue and orange and white. He lept from shadows, guiding people past monsters with nasty teeth and fiery eyes.
“You made this?” I asked.
He nodded. The kid looked down one side of the street to another. “¿Est-ce que tu aimes ça?” He quickly corrected himself. “You like it?” He sweated now, nervous and afraid. I felt for the kid. Trying to make a living like my Dad wanted anyone to do. I nodded.
“It’s good.” I searched for the words. “Um...Je l'aime beaucoup.” My school french was rusty.
He grinned. “Alo, this name. It means spiritual guide. He saves people, helping to find their home.”
“It’s good. How much?”
He grew nervous again. “A dollar.” It was more of a question than a demand.
I fumbled in my pocket and gave him two. He motioned for me to hand him the comic. I did.
“Who should I make it out to?”
I hesitated at first. “Aaron.”
He scribbled inside the front cover. “To the messenger, Aaron. Best wishes, Mateo.”
He gave me the comic and slipped back into the shadows, throwing the money into a backpack stacked to the brim with more comics.
“Wait,” I said.
Mateo turned, backpack halfway around his shoulders.
“If you need a place to stay or some place, you know, to kill some time, my friend has a pizza shop. It’s on 5th. Can’t miss it.” I paused. “Here.” I handed him Mrs. Clements’ cakes.
He took the container, pushing the lid up a breath to see the cakes inside. I saw the faintest smile. He tucked the container under his arm, waved and was off.
Folding the comic, I forced it into my back pocket. I jumped into the street, impatience for the order to walk and dodged the grill of a taxi. I ignored the shouts, keeping an eye out for Pastoral Park half a block down. The city invested reject, it was now privately owned, squished up against its larger cousin. It sat, poorly maintained and poorly lit, forging an alcove between townhouses. Taxpayers tried to get behind the project once more a couple of years ago and convinced the owner to plant an “atypical arrangement of tropical plants never seen before in New York City” The Times wrote the next morning. Half the plants died without the heat the mild city seasons failed to provide while others flourished. Thick, red-tinged plants shot from the ground between oaks and maples. The neighborhood nicknamed it “Pastoral Park” for the divine guidance that brought it to life and the glorious shortcut it provided for locals.
The trees failed to provide shelter against the rain as I swung a left. I was going on instinct at this point as the lights along the path burned out long ago. The park smelled fresh: dirt forming with the rain. Venturing deeper, the sounds of the city faded into a low rumble. It reminded me of Kansas City. The meadows and animals. Tapping electric fences, touching the bull and running. Shoes were optional but the summers not.
Nails held the lucky few posters against the trees. The rest bathed the pavement, faces starting up into the heavens, offering prayers and searching for an answer. Joggers raced through the paths, not daring to stop in the night. The park allowed for a brief rest from the craziness of the city. It felt like a different place, a different world.
He jumped from the bushes, dirty, and eyes crusted together.
“Your hands kid, let me see ‘em.” A deep low voice spoke with a tongue bled dry by hunger.
He jabbed the pistol against my neck and pressed hard. My knees buckled. He dug the barrel deeper, pushing against bone and not stopping there.
“Lay on the ground.” His voice was raspy, almost a cough of every word sputtering out and trying to find its place after the letters before it. I laid down, tasting dirt and sucking dust. The pistol still to my neck, he pushed his boot into my back.
I spread out, clenching my fists. He felt around my pockets, pulling my wallet out and plastic cards spilled around my legs. I didn’t have much in there I knew. He threw the wallet at my head.
“This is it?” He coughed, spraying me. He cocked the pistol and fired. The bullet struck the dirt yards away. My ears rang and I clasped my hands over them, trying to rub out the sting of vibrations. I could feel the heat and hear the singe as the bullet melted into the ground. I was shaking. I looked for help, a jogger, anything but they had fled at the sound of the shot. He cocked the pistol again and pressed it against my head. I waited for the end. God knows I made a disaster of my time here on Earth. I have never prayed in my life but found myself scrambling for a few words. I thought of my parents, my father. The one person that had put a roof over my head. I could hear his voice in my head from the day I left.
“You’ll never find a home like this. Not with all them illegals runnin’ around.”
The pistol went limp, dragged off my body, and fell beside my head. I flailed on the ground, turning over with my arms guarding my head. She stood above me, branch in hand, panting.
It was the girl. Clear as day, I could imagine her standing next to Pots, leaning into his shoulders. Her face had seen a few battles since the picture and scars crossed below her eyes but it was her. The rain pelted us, washing away the dirt and grime on my face. Leaning on one arm, the gunman bent to his knees and the girl swung the branch again, connecting with his stomach. He let out a labored groan more animal than man and fell back to the ground. I scrambled to my feet and kicked the pistol away from his reach. It landed at the feet of the girl and she picked it up and held it over the gunman. He closed his eyes and rolled back and forth, holding his stomach, wheezing and spitting and whining short, stuttered gasps. I found my footing and the girl waved the pistol at me.
"Turn him over."
"You're his niece. Pots' niece." It felt awkward, knowing more about her than she did about me. We were patrons of the same community yet strangers. She waved the gun again, dismissing my accusation.
“Turn him over.”
I grabbed his shoulders and flipped him onto his back. She pressed the pistol into his forehead.
“Stop,” I shouted. I grabbed her hand, brushing the gun away from his head. She whipped back, still holding the pistol, shoving me back to the ground. She swung the pistol and pointed it at me.
“Watch it,” she said. “I’m here to survive and I don’t need bums like you telling me what to do.” She paused. “Plus I saved your ass. ¿Comprendre?”
She returned her line of sight to the man, unmoved. His chest rose and fell, not in a pattern, but in short skittish breaths. Using the pistol, she poked at his face, raising his eyelids. Blank stares returned the favor. She raised her sweatshirt and shoved the pistol in the front of her pants, the handle sticking out. She reached out her hand and I took it, jumping to my legs.
“Is he dead?”
“No,” she said. “He’ll wake up from a bad dream soon enough. Help me.” She pointed to a thick grove where an oak, split at its base, grew into two trunks towards the sky. “We’ll lay him in there.”
A branch snapped. A shout and a flashlight blinded our faces.
The girl dropped the legs and I hung there, holding his arm aloft. Policemen poured through the brush. They spotted us and raised their guns.
“Hands where I can see them.”
“Officer,” I started but he was having none of it.
"On your knees and hands where I can see them,” he barked. The flashlights jumped from our hands to our feet and back again.
“Hands up ma’am. I won’t tell you again.”
She raised her hands, slowly, letting the end of her sweatshirt crawl up her body.
“She’s got a gun,” an officer shouted.
They rushed us. A boot forced my head into the mud. The officer grabbed my wrists, screwing them together behind my back and handcuffed me. Hands tore through my pockets. Finding nothing, he patted down my body.
“Where’s your ID son?”
I jerked my head around to the cards at my feet. He picked them up, flipping through until he saw my mug. He scanned it.
“Aaron Z. Navarro. New York City. Born in Kansas City , Missouri. 1974. Confirmed.”
I heard my rights. The words slurring together. I saw the girl, head against the ground, looking at me. Her eyes displaying more annoyance than fear. We lay there, heads tilted against the ground, a connection between us from this perspective of the earth. They searched her.
“You got an ID ma’am?”
She closed her eyes and closed her lips.
“Ma’am, do you understand me? Do you have an ID?”
"Around my neck,” she mustered.
The cop put his hand beneath her sweatshirt and pulled out a thin metal chain. He snapped it off and scanned the ID hanging from the end.
“Maria Gunwach. New York City. Born in Seattle, Washington. 1947. Confirmed.”
“Well, Ms. Gunwach. You don’t look a day over twenty-five.”
He put the ID up next to the girl’s face. It showed a wrinkled, white woman with her hair tied in a bun.
“You care to tell us who you are?” He nudged his boot into her stomach. She spat.
“Go to hell.”
The cop turned to his partner, a sadistic joy creeping into his voice. “We got ourselves an illegal.”
They led us by our cuffs back out the way I had come in. Branches snapped under the parade of boots. Blues and reds lit up the park. Heads tilted, hands shoved us into the back seat. Even with two people, the car felt squished and uncomfortable. Two cops stepped into the car on either side. The radio crackled.
“Officer Lewis, we have 10-56 in progress about two miles from your position.”
“Can’t Suzy, sorry. Officer Sids and I have two crabs we’re bringing back to the ocean.”
Officer Lewis replaced the radio and shifted the car into drive. The girl breathed in and out in long deep loud moans. Sids banged on the mesh.
“Quiet up in there.”
The girl sniffled, snorted, and was quiet. Lewis followed the directions of a cop on the street waving traffic around the police tape. The sirens blared into the night and we eased our way towards the station. I pressed my head against the window. Chaos reigned on the streets. Droves of people walked between cars, not caring about the laws. Cops patrolling the roads whistled to no avail. Lewis honked.
“Let’s go,” he shouted.
He blared the siren in short whoops but the thick crowds ignored him.
“We’re too close to the Square,” Sids said. We waited, Lewis pounding his fingers on the steering wheel in progression. He checked his watched and showed it to Sids.
Sids grunted. “You got any of those resolutions?”
“Lose weight, drink more, work more.” Lewis chuckled. “You know, the usual.”
“Look,” I said, pointing out through the windshield. “Up there. Follow the crowds.”
We all looked. Between the front seats, we saw the crystallized ball shining against the nightlife. It hung, suspended, waiting for its birth. Lewis rolled down his window and the ball began to drop slow and graceful towards the earth. The crowds around us began to chant.
Lewis put out his hand. “Happy New Year, Sids. Another year, another lousy salary.
I closed my eyes, capturing the last still moment alive in the city.
“Three. Two. One.”
Cheers. Confetti poured from windows above us, dumped from buckets. The fireworks shot and roared into the night. One, two. One, two. I focused on that moment as the fireworks, launched into the sky, disappeared before exploding into a mess of sparks. One, two. One, two. Songs broke out around us. Drunks raised their bottles. Hugs and kisses poured out between friends. I looked at the girl and she turned her head.
“Happy New Year,” she mouthed.
I smiled. “Happy New Year.”
Whistles broke the festivities. Cops patrolling the roads took on a new vigor, ordering people around and out of the way. Shortcuts began to emerge.
Sids pointed down a side street. “Take a left, here. It’s faster.”
Lewis turned the wheel, forcing traffic coming the other way to stop. This street was quieter and we were able to pick up speed. A few drunks zigzagged on the sidewalks, supported by their friends who sheepishly waved when they saw us coming. Lewis turned the siren on and off, motioning for people to go to this side of the street or that. We made a left on Broadway and again on 38th before pulling into a nook that sneaked between the traffic.
Lewis never saw the car coming. It hit my side first, flipping us into onto the sidewalk. My shoulders hit leather, plastic, and glass over and over before falling on and shattering the window. Millions of tiny shards threw themselves into my hair, scratching my face and disabling my inner thoughts. Faint screams echoed through my head. Upside down, the car rocked back and forth. I rolled onto my stomach, my hands still cuffed around my back. I craned my neck up meeting Sids’ face, his head smashed in and kissing the mesh. Lewis’ body decorated the dashboard, his head smelling the fresh air and his legs twisted around the seat.
“Everyone okay in there?” A cigarette poked through the broken window. “Oh shit.” A leather-faced man stared at me. His eyes widened and the cigarette fell down the window onto my lap. I scrambled.
I tore my face into a desperate act of hopelessness. “Please, we need an ambulance.”
The man motioned to his buddies. They forced the door open. Reaching in, they wrapped their arms under my armpits and dragged me out of the car. They passed me along like a jug of water, down from the mountain to the road. The last man brought me to my feet and let go. I fell to the pavement, scraping my face on the pavement.
“Careful, buddy.” He pulled me up and I sat on the road.
They reached in and grabbed the girl and laid her next to me. Bits of glass stuck to her arms and she shook her hair, letting a never ending pile of glass form on the ground. People were on their phones, looking at us and away. I heard bits of conversation
The other car was a classic dark brown Cadillac. Through the steam driving out of the hood, I could see the driver, dead on the wheel, crushed cans of Miller Light scattered on his dashboard. The front end of his car had folded itself into an accordion. The whispers grew stronger.
“We wait until help arrives and then we go. We don’t know who they are.”
“Hey,” I yelled, grabbing his attention. “Grab the keys.” I turned my back to show him my hands.
"You got the wrong idea son. I’ll pull you from a wreck but I’m not walking you out of jail. You’ll sit there till the cops come.” The others murmured.
The girl lost it. “Vasa-nou, vasa-nou, vasa-nou.” She shook, her words twisting in violent trails through arms and legs. The crowds stepped back. We heard the sirens in the distance. A few people in the crowd waved their hands in their direction.
“Over here,” they shouted.
I struggled to my feet.
“Vasa-nou, vasa-nou, vasa-nou,” the girl continued to scream.
Out of the thick of the crowds, a short, pudgy woman ran and knelt next to us.
“Sirlo-vas h’omb?” she asked.
The girl motioned to Lewis’ body speared through the windshield. She ran to the cop, fumbling around his belt and ripping the keys off. She returned to the girl but she shook her head and motioned towards me.
The woman ran to me and shoved the key into my cuffs. They broke free, hitting the pavement.
“Thank you,” I said. The woman bowed her head and ran back to the girl.
The tension in the crowd broke. “Stop her,” a voice shouted. A scuffle broke out as the crowd descended on the woman. The keys scattered. They beat her, throwing fists and purses onto her flesh. The girl curled her body into a fetal position trying to protect her head.
I raced to Lewis and tore off his jacket, shedding the ground with more glass. I pulled his gun from the holster and aimed it at the crowd.
“Stop,” I shouted.
The crowd froze, backing up. A few held their hands up. I walked to the girl, letting the gun jolt from left to right, finding eyes in the night. I placed the jacket over the girl’s shoulders, the tail falling over her cuffs. She knelt next to the lady, rubbing her hands over her face. Blood smeared her hands and she placed them on her neck.
“She’s breathing,” the girl said. She looked to me for directions.
I threw the gun through the broken windshield.
We ran. Deep into the city, into the crowds. Left. Left. Right. Left. Taking turns with no conceived plan but to get away as far away from the accident as possible. My legs burned, fire shooting from my thighs to my ankles. My stomach clenched in a knot.
Several blocks away, the girl stopped, bent over, gasping for air. “Stop. Please.” She coughed then dry heaved. People around us looked but went on to their own problems. I placed my hand on her back, letting it rise and fall with her body. She threw up. Chunks splattered across the sidewalk, catching the ends of her hair. People went out of their way to avoid us, shaking their heads.
“Over here,” I said leading her to a bench outside a coffee shop. She sat. “Deep breaths in.” I breathed in long and slow helping myself as much as her. “And out.” I looked around. Strangers surrounded us and drunk eyes paid us no mind. The girl leaned over, away from me, and threw up again. A couple next to us, seated at a table, got up in disgust and left. I grabbed their glass of water and handed it to her.
She took it and managed small sips between coughs. I could hear sirens in the distance. They came from all angles, bouncing off the buildings and fleeing through the streets.
"Pots," she said softly, acknowledging for the first time our connection to one another.
I cradled her arm in mine, giving her support. We took it slow. The street signs, before a haze of unfocused words, took shape, and I, to my relief, realized we were not far. We kept to the shadows, eyes alert for flashing lights. The city bustled. Neon signs pointed to restaurants and bars. The rain, now near a drizzle, spared the crowds migrating to Times Square hoping to catch a glimpse of the post-drop festivities. We could hear the music, pumping for television crowds across the country. Hopping from street to block, rain blended into sweat on my body.
We turned a corner. Pots’ bright sign shone in the distance and we picked up our pace, short of a light jog as we raced to the front door. A few steps from the door, I stopped, rounding in front of the girl.
“Wait, I said. I brushed the glass from her hair and arms and straightened her jacket.
“I don’t know your name.”
She smiled, blowing strands of hair out of her face. “Catrina.”
“Aaron.” I stuck out my hand and then understood the horror of my mistake. She chuckled. Leaning forward, she gave me a hug with no hands. I wrapped my arms around her pressing against the cold cop’s jacket. In the same moment it started, it ended.
The festivities inside the shop were still going strong and I failed to see an end in sight. Patrons danced between the booths, confetti and toilet paper strung between them. The snowy television was on mute and music blasted from the speakers. It took a few moments for someone to notice us but as one faced turned towards us, a small trickle followed until it met Pots, standing against the counter, apron wet and soggy. The music softened. He crinkled his face and tears began to flow down to his beard. He rushed to Catrina, throwing both arms around her like a lost lamb. He spoke rapid fire. I heard muffled replies deep inside Pot’s arms. He let her go and they stepped back, still holding hands, laughing as they made one another cry.
“Hi’ya Pots,” she said.
He brought her in again, hugging her tight and turned towards the shop, Catrina in tow. The shop didn’t wait for Pots to say anything. They burst into cheers, the music strengthing the celebration. They swarmed Pots and Catrina. The lost girl had returned. Pots let Catrina go and descended on me. I lost a couple of breaths.
“You did good, kid.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Can we get these damn cuffs off?” Catrina gasped between hugs. I took the jacket off of Catrina’s shoulders. Pots rubbed her wrists, now raw and skinned. He held them for a moment before motioning to the cashier.
“Get my pliers.”
Carefully placing the jaws between the cuffs, he snapped the line and her hands were free from one another but still slaves to the cuff on each hand.
I retreated to Pidge’s booth. Cuddled up, feet up on the table, Pidge hid behind a copy of Eight Lessons Learned in Prison. I saw his eyes scan right to left, right to left. I slid in and lay my feet out across the vinyl.
“You’re a hero,” said Pidge. “Pots owes you one.”
“I was lucky. She saved me.”
Pidge waved a finger over his book. “Luck is for those that aren’t prepared. You, my friend, we’re always prepared.”
I plucked several napkins from its holder and wrapped them around my hands, holding in drops of blood. The napkin turned a deep, dark red.
“And you all did it for the money.”
“The money?” I wasn’t following his train of thoughts.
He lowered his book. “This place does well my friend. How can a man like Pots not be loaded?Surely there’s a reward.” He placed the book on table, splitting it to form a bookmark. “Truth be told, I wish I was in your position.”
I peered over at the girl, leaning against her Pots, like in the picture, catching up the crowd on her adventure. A few began to look my way when I assumed I entered the story.
Pots raised his arms. “Enough, you need food my love. Everyone. Everyone. Room please for the heroine that has come home.”
The girl moved to join us and I unstuck my feet from the seat. I sat up straight and she scooted in next to me. Pots put both hands on the table and leaned in. “What do you want to eat? Both of you. On me.”
Catrina, the sleeves of her sweatshirt hiding her hands and buried in her chin ordered the Pesto Ricotta and a coke. “Just a slice for me, thank you,” I said.
Pidge pushed his mug to the edge of the table.
“And another one of these.”
Pidge stuck out his hand to Catrina.
“Pidge. Nice to meet you.”
I was shaking. The adrenaline from the night’s escape wouldn’t leave me. I felt safe. I felt the trouble was behind me but there was no instant satisfaction. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still wrong. I hadn’t had a chance to debrief Pots on my mission to Mrs. Clements and I had to take the position that no news was good news.
Catrina and Pidge made small talk. He chewed on her travels and examined her hands, prescribing treatments between statements like, “I’m no doctor.”
“A mix of onion and sea salt, three hours in a bath and you’ll be good as knew. No damage.”
Catrina turned to me. “My uncle is asking a lot of questions. Where was I? Why the cuffs? He is very scared that people are still chasing us.”
“You must tell him everything,” I said.
“I can’t. You don’t understand my Uncle. He is a wonderful man but a protective one. Don’t tell him what happened.”
Pots returned, arms full of plates and drinks. With an impressive moment, he glided the food in front of each of us. Setting the tray on the booth next to us, he grabbed a chair from a nearby table, turned it around, and sat with us. Pots grabbed my hands and put them between his. They were rough, sandy, and strong. They comforted me. They protected me.
“I thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Our family is indebted to you.”
I didn’t want to interrupt and Pots continued.
“Family is very important to us.” He let go of my hands and put his arm on Pidge’s shoulder. “Take Pidge. Is he related to me? No, but he is my brother. We’ve been through a lot. Maybe too much, eh?”
Pidge raised his mug. “Cheers.”
“And Catrina. Oh my dear sweet Catrina, have I ever told you when your mother and I ran away from home? You remind me so much of her.”
“A thousand times Uncle.” Catrina beamed between bits of pesto. Her mouth full, she waved her fork. “Tell me again though, I love this story.”
Pots leaned back. “I was six and your mother eight. I followed her everywhere.”
The restaurant inched closer to Pots without ruffling his momentum.
“We grew up near Juniper’s Hole on the cusp of the Moravian Desert. A long stretch of dry, crusted earth and stone. My mother used to threaten us that if we put one more gray hair on her head, she’d ride us out to the middle and leave us there.”
“Where’s the Moravian desert?” I asked. I was pretty good at geography and I had memorized the posters in the classrooms I cleaned. I never remembered such a place.
Pots hesitated. “Far away.” He shooed the question away with his hand. “Your mother and I had a game to see who could travel the farthest into the desert and return unharmed. It was innocent at first, a few feet, out to that rock and back. But one time your mother, emboldened by god knows what, began walking. Her body became a pinpoint on the horizon. I waited on the edge, my feet hugging the barrier between our yard and the sand. It grew dark and she didn’t return.”
Catrina wiped her mouth with a napkin and motioned, without looking, at me to grab her another. “My mother told me she walked until dark.”
Pots closed his eyes, imagining the moment in his mind. “I waited till dark and then I heard the bell. That one your Grandmother always ran when dinner was ready.”
“She woke me up with that bell,” Catrina laughed.
“I didn’t know what to do,” said Pots. “I faced wrath on either side. I shouted, ‘Morra.’ I heard nothing back except the wind running across the sand. And then I heard my mother yelling my name. I could feel the food being dumped into the trash. But I stood my ground.”
Pidge took a sip from his mug, being careful to not make a sound when he put it back on the table.
“My mother found me out by the line, pacing and watching the horizon line. ‘Where’s Morra?’ she asked me. I shrugged and pointed out towards the desert. And my mother ran, straight out into the desert, over the horizon line and out of sight. And when I saw her again, she was dragging Morra by the ear until they stood at my feet.”
Catrina giggled. “Mother says she saw monsters on the other side of the desert but Grandma frightened them all away.”
Pots grinned. “I don’t doubt anything your mother says she saw.”
Catrina raised her glass.
“To family,” added Pots. The restaurant raised their drinks and that feeling of nostalgia flew through the air, tickling our lips.
The front door jingled.
“Mrs. Clements.” Pots bounded from his seat and to the door. He greeted her with a peck on either side of her cheeks. They continued in low conversation. Mrs. Clements waved her arms and Pots tried to calm her. She raised her finger into Pots’ face. Pots motioned to Pidge. He got up, throwing his book on the table and joined the conversation.
“They’re making a deal,” Catrina said not taking her eyes off the conversation. On beat, Mrs. Clements reached into her jacket and pulled out a handful of dollar bills. Pots shook his hands.
“Put it back,” he said. The tone of their conversation grew louder. The angrier Mrs. Clements became, the more her arms waved.
“I need to sees him Pots. He’s ready, waiting at the station like you says. He’s there right now.”
“Mrs. Clements, I can’t tonight. The timing is unstable. It’s New Years. I told you I couldn’t on New Years.”
Mrs. Clements shoved the money into Pots’ chest. “I’ll pay you double.”
Pots shook his head. Pidge put his hand on Mrs. Clements back and she shoved it away. She wagged her finger at both of them.
“Shame on you. Shame on you both. If he can’t come here, then I want to go home. Take me to Narea.”
“It’s not possible, Mrs. Clements.”
I turned to Catrina. “Where’s Narea?” She didn’t answer.
Mrs. Clements folded her arms. Pots rubbed his hands through his hair. He looked older in that moment, not middle-aged shop owner but merely aged. His creases deepened, forging valleys across his face. He turned back to Mrs. Clements.
“I’ll try but something could go wrong. I can’t promise anything. You could land anywhere.”
Mrs. Clements nodded. They paraded back to the kitchen and out of sight, Pots, Pidge, and Mrs. Clements in a line.
“Where are they going?” I asked. Catrina turned around to face me, a protective filter spread across her face. She pulled up her sleeve.
“This is Narea,” she said. On her wrist, a crude “x” bit her flesh. Dark purple and stained, it stood, unmoving and permanent. The flesh around it, pure and whole, surrounded the wound but the scar stood its ground.
“They branded me.” She moved her finger along the mark, tracing its outline. “It’s the mark of a runaway. A deserter. A liar. A whore.” Her anger stalled her. She pulled her sweatshirt down again and covered the scar. I knew nothing of Catrina yet that mark told me everything. She was a survivor, a fighter. I wanted the conversation to go on but knew I was pressing into dangerous territory.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“When they cut me, it’s the most powerless I’ve ever felt. I kicked and screamed but they held me down. My mother was beside me, screaming, biting, kicking, and shoving. She couldn’t do a thing.” She closed her eyes. “I was seven. They shaved my head and stripped my clothes. They pressed the iron against my skin before they put it in the fire. I remember the men chuckling, the cold steel against my body. ‘Don’t be scared,’ they said. I’ll never forget the sound of the iron digging deeper and deeper into the coals and the bright color of orange it was when it came out. It glowed.” Catrina wiped tears from her eyes. “I am marked forever as an alien. Forever as dead to Narea.”
We sat in silence for several minutes, the party dancing around us. Pots and Pidge returned, absent of Mrs. Clements. They pulled into our booth. Pots placed his hand on Catrina’s wrist, speaking with new vigor.
“It also stands for freedom.” He lifted his arm, revealing his own scar underneath his bicep. It was the same mark. Pidge pulled back his hair, showing his scar embedded in his neck.
“In our home, there is nothing but war. We are forced to fight, brother against brother. Those that refuse are marked for everyone to see as the cowards they brand us as.”
“Where are these people? Why don’t you tell the cops?” I asked.
Pots sighed and pointed outside. “Because our faces are on those posters. You have not heard of Narea, am I right, yes?”
I nodded. The moment tried to stand on its legs. I sensed the great secret that, although holding, was ready to burst.
“Narea is a proud monster. A fighting, scrapping well of nature and people not unlike Earth. It is our planet and our home.”
“We came here looking for peace and found more war. But we are stuck between worlds. Which war is worse. Which home is safer?” Pots patted his scar. “I am not a coward. I am freedom.”
I leaned back in the booth. “And Mrs. Clements.”
“She was arranging for her husband to come here. It’s dangerous to travel on a night like this when emotions are running high and the air is unstable. She chose to go back. It was her choice, not mine.”
My mind vomited questions, some stumbling out of my mouth. “How do you travel from here to there? How long does it take? Why Earth?”
Pots put his hand on Pidge’s shoulder. “That you have to ask this man. Nabbing him was the greatest ally our people stole.”
Pidge tucked in beside me and unfolded a napkin from the dispenser. Grabbing a pen from his pocket, he sketched out a few boxes and lines. “How much understanding do you have of space travel?”
I stared. “I wash floors Pidge.”
He scrunched up the napkin and tossed it the table. “Do you understand how a door works?” He mimed opening a door. I thought he was trying to trick me.
“There’s a door. You step through it, you’re in Narea. You step back through and you’re here on Earth. Simple really. It’s one of a kind. Nothing else exists like it in the universe.”
"And where is this door,” I asked.
“Far, far below. Under the Earth.”
Sirens blasted the night air. Cars screeched to a stop inches from the shop, filling the room with a deafening howl of color. Cops stomped through the door, guns raised. Catrina and I ducked under the booth. Pidge stepped in front, shielding us.
A detective walked out through the guns, flashing his badge above his head around the room. “I am Detective Kennedy. I am looking for Bastion Fennen.”
Pots stepped forward.
“That’s me. What do you want? This is private property.”
Two cops rushed forward, grabbing each of Pots’ arms and forcing them behind his back. Pots fought back, throwing the cops to the ground. Tables and chairs scattered, crashing against the floor. He fought like a beast, throwing his arms around, fighting anything that dared to step into range. Kennedy pulled a taser from his belt and shot Pots, dropping him to the floor. He cuffed him.
“Bastion Fennon, you are under arrest for harboring illegal aliens. You have the right to remain silent.” He continued Pots’ right. The shop froze, hung in midair. I peeked out from beneath the table and watched, powerless, as they dragged Pots from the shop. We ran to the window. They threw Pots into the back of a cop car and I saw Mateo, shielding his body on the other side of the street, a poster in his hand. He met my eyes and ran off into the night.
The shop panicked. The volume rose decibels in seconds. Someone locked the front door.
“They’ll kill him,” Pidge said. People murmured in agreement.
“We don’t know that,” Catrina said, doubt trickling off her tongue with the words.
“And he has rights,” I added. I was furious. Mateo’s face burned in my mind.
Pidge lost his temper. “What rights? What don’t you understand? If you’re from England, they put a sticker on your back and mail you off. If you’re from Brazil, they send you on the first plane out. When they don’t know where you’re from. They get rid of you. It’s less paperwork. Pots doesn’t have an ID.”
Pidge backed off and grabbed Catrina’s hand. “We need Morra. We need to bring the rebellion here.”
Catrina crinkled her face. “Pidge, I haven’t seen her years. She wasn’t there when I jumped."
Pidge folded his arms, rocking back and forth. “Are the rumors true? Did she cross the desert after they raided your home?”
Catrina concentrated and placed her hands over her face. “I don’t know. I don’t know. She fled that day. They took me out and my mother fled. I don’t know where she went.”
She sat on the edge of a booth, tucking her head into her lap. Her voice, muffled, drifted out between her arms. “But she did tell me one thing.” She raised her head. “‘Where the well is, I will be there also.’”
“There’s no well in the desert,” Pidge said. The lights and sirens were gone and a deep, dark sadness fell over the shop. We stood in silence for several moments, brains scratching.
Catrina stood up. “No, not in the desert but the source of all the water in Narea lies across the desert.”
Pidge finished her thought. “In Danes Harbor.” They scrambled to their feet. Catrina threw the cop’s jacket over her shoulders.
“Please mother, be there,” she whispered.
“I want to go,” I said. The words sprung my mouth before logic could fight back.
They paused. Pouring into each other’s mind to see if the secret was worth unraveling more.
“No questions,” Pidge said.
We raced through the kitchen, a state of disaster as if Pots expected this day would come. Any health inspector would have immediately shut him down if they walked back here. The floor stuck to my shoes and rotting vegetables and bread hung in rusted baskets. Plates crashed behind us. Pidge led us to the freezer and motioned to me to help him open it. He threw a latch and it took both of us to pull the door out. It was cold inside, enough that any person stuck in there for a few hours might freeze to death. No food was actually kept there. Pots always had a plan. Always had a back door to escape through.
“Close the door,” he told me. I clasped it shut. The air inside bit me on the shoulders, lips, and fingers. Catrina picked up bags of ice and threw them to the side. Pidge unhinged a door in the floor.
“You first,” he said to Catrina. Covering her head, she fled down the steps below. I followed and Pidge came right behind us, closing the door. I heard the rustle as he felt along the wall. He flipped a switch and stringed lights followed the stairs down several stories. I could see through the grated steps into the twisting path below us.
“Watch your step,” Pidge said.
Our feet echoed against the walls. Deeper and deeper under the earth. We wound in circles, sometimes taking steps two and three at a time.
At the bottom, I jumped onto dirt. The ground was damp, moist from the rain seeping down into the ground. Above me, I saw the roots of plants forming a maze of life below the surface. I saw new hope, springing down below the ground and arching its way up to pierce the sky again. I felt a green vine. It was rough, thick and strong, bending to unnatural shapes as it fought for life.
The lights fled into a tunnel, carved out of the earth. I saw the fresh prints of Pots, Pidge, and Mrs. Clements from minutes earlier. Pidge led us now, craning his neck as the tunnel narrowed.
“Not much further,” Pidge shouted.
We stepped out into a room. It sprung from the ground, vines reaching towards the heavens. Where a lover of nature had dug the tunnel we left in haste, a lover of craftsmanship had built this room with care. Domed at the top, dark stained oak beams wove up to the ceiling. There were no corners and only one exit, the tunnel that stood to our backs. The room was no more than a few feet from end to end.
Steel cabinets lined the outside, stacked two high. Networking cables started from one and ended at another. Red, blue, and gray lights blinked in succession. Pidge and Catrina lept into action. Running his hands down a row of dials, Pidge made calculated moves. Some right. Some left. Catrina ran to the center of the room, standing on a loose piece of tape. She closed her eyes. I could see the pain, the stress of the day and the weight of the world on her shoulders. I stood there, dumb and unmovable. Pidge moved between the cabinets and Catrina. Thunder cracked high above ground and the lights along the beams blinked. Smoke billowed out of the cabinets. Pidge ran into high gear.
“Quickly. We must do this quickly,” Pidge barked.
The hairs on my arms picked up, feeling the electricity in the air.
“Stand here.” Catrina pointed to the spot next to her. She put her hand in mine. Pidge put his arm on a rusted out switch. It dangled from the wall, wires exposed and sparking onto the dirt.
Catrina nodded. Pidge threw the switch down. A hum filled the room, starting in the corners and spreading up and out of the earth. It pierced my ears, splitting my head. I closed my eyes, throwing my hands over my ears to ease the pain. Pidge put his arms around us, pushing us into a tight and cohesive unit.
Thunder cracked. Electricity pulsed through my body and then the sharp sting of sand attacked my tongue.