The Lost Boy
I’d like to think, after everything that happened, that Duke and I could have been friends.
The night that my dad and my mom split up forever was the first night that I had met Duke. I’d slipped out the bathroom window, leaving Christy to sob and wail in the bathtub. We’d decided long ago that the best place to hide when your parents were throwing things at each other and shouting names that they’d constantly told you never to repeat aloud in front of civilized company was the bathroom. Especially if you had to wait it out - the toilet was right there, and if your dad left reading material by the handle, then there you go - diversion, at least, for an hour or two.
We’d been sitting in the tub comparing feet size (“God, Roddy, your feet are bigger than flippers!”) and I was trying my best to keep the little girl together. Christy was only nine and I was thirteen by then, so I was well within my big brother rights to worry about Christy relentlessly. I’d become convinced that she had this fragile state of mind that would be easily shattered if I told her the truth about anything. Which was why when cats died, they migrated to a kitty heaven where they were ten times fluffier, cuter and more playful than they were when they were alive and that Christy would be able to see her dead kitten (run over in the street) when she dreamt. Nevertheless, the biggest threat to Christy’s sanity, at that time, was the fact that our parent’s relationship was falling apart before our eyes. Mom had begun to suffer from insomnia which meant she spent half the night scrubbing the house as though she couldn’t get the stink of dad’s presence off the walls fast enough. And Dad was barely around anymore, preferring the anonymity of nameless motels and bars where his two worried children wouldn’t be able to follow.
Personally, I was on Mom’s side. Ever since Dad had hit fifty, he’d begun acting like an asshole, ignoring me, becoming secretive with his money and time, and forgetting to pick me up from baseball practice. But Christy couldn’t see fault with anyone. She only wanted to come home to where her Mom waited with cookies on the stove (never happened) and to where her Dad would sit her on his knee and bounce her (only happened once and he looked pissed that he was forced to entertain his daughter thusly). I told her that Mom and Dad were just having a rough patch and that they just sounded like they wanted to kill each other, but it was all fun and games. I was getting to be a real good liar.
Nevertheless, the shouting escalated until it reached peak levels, perfect for two young children to hear crystalline words puncture through the walls.
“You don’t give a f--- what happens to your own children? What the f--- kind of man are you? You should have stayed back in Lowne, with the rest of your backward family! Marry some bastard whore right out of the bar like the f--- you are!”
“Get off! You f----- wanted those kids, you asked for them? You got them!”
“And you’re going to pay for every cent! You hear me? You’re going to put them through school, through college, pay for their first child’s daycare! You’re going to pay until there’s nothing left and then you’re going to pay my alimony!”
“F---! Get off, I said! I’ll kill those f------ kids before I let them ruin my life! You hear me?”
That’s when mom went ballistic. I kind of zoned out after I heard my dad say what he said, but I found out later from Tommy Noodle, whose dad works as a switchboard operator at the police station, that my mom had pretty much broken a bottle over my dad’s head and then chased him, screaming like a banshee, down the street. And while it may sound kind of cartoonish and ha-ha worthy, the reality was that the police came, arrested my mom, and my dad had to be taken to Urgent Care where he had five stitches sewn into the top of his shaved head. Our aunt Janice had to come out from the northern sector of the city (something she hates doing) to collect a hysteric Christy, because my mom was being charged for domestic abuse, and I was long gone out the window.
How easy it would have been just to keep walking. I think it crosses the minds of every kid, at least once in their lives, to just abandon their everyday existences and go adventuring. Of course, on an Island with finite borders and hundreds of miles of sea in every which way, adventuring amounts to nothing more than puttering around on a shoal of rocks. But as I said, I’d kind of checked out.
My dad’s words hadn’t fully developed in my mind, at least the meaning of them. Kill us? Kill me - and Christy? Ruining his life? They took on the pain normally reserved gunshot wounds or knife stabs. They felt mortally deep, as though I were bleeding out just hobbling down the dark street. I tried to think of other things - how chill the air was, how empty the avenues, how bright the night sky - but everything, everything came back to the same unnerving thought - that my own father wanted me dead.
In those instances, its good to try and apply a little reason. My dad was upset. He was frantic. He was blindsided. He responded to the extreme accusations and threats my mom was making with equally extreme threats. He didn’t mean it. He was in the heat of the moment.
Of course, none of this was making me feel any better. Within ten minutes of having left my young sister to wallow in the misery and chaos of our imploding household, I was sobbing like I was five years old, lost and in search of something, I don’t know what. I wasn’t sure if there was anyone around to see my abject sadness, but I prayed that there wasn’t. God knows I had enough trouble maintaining my manhood when my mom still made me bag lunches with dainty cucumber sandwiches and my name written in magic marker on the front.
I veered off the main road and into a shallow field of lilies. I realized that I was near the schoolyard. How different it seemed in the night. So much more sinister. I imagined seeing see-through ghost children throwing balls back and forth to one another in perpetual motion, remnants of an earlier time when parents were actually good parents and when children were actually good children. It was the kind of memory that my history teacher, Mrs. Birch, was always talking about. We all thought she was an old buzzard with all her “back in my day’s” and her “today’s kids are nothing more than common thugs,” etc. She had been notorious for a while for calling the police on her classes whenever one kid refused to do as she said, at least, until the administration told her to knock it off or they were going to forcibly retire her. But she was, like, eighty years old; she needed retirement, or at least a new deodorant. In any case, she always reminded me of the long-gone world of nuclear families huddled together in bomb shelters, which in turn caused me to think of buried people, buried in vats in the earth, waiting for the bombs to strike, still afraid after all these years. I thought of those darkened chambers in the ground, where the skeletons were blessedly hidden by the smothering darkness.
Even in my gloom, I could still smile. My mom always told me that I was too morbid for my own good. I used to like that - the idea of “morbid.” It made me feel cool, deep. But I knew how moody it sounded. How much like posing. I tried to cheer myself up.
That was when I was aware that I wasn’t alone anymore.
When you live in the inner city, especially when you live in the lower sectors, you see a strange figure shifting on the periphery of your vision, you immediately think, “Run!” And that was my first impulse, but then he stepped into the light and I saw him for what he was.
Of course, I didn’t know his name then. He could have been Harry or Mark or Nathan or Gerald. But he wasn’t. His name was Duke. I never found out his last name. He strode from the night like a thought fully formed, one that had been gestating, furtive, in the back of your mind, but once you hit on it, there was no other way it could’ve come about. He was tall and seemed entirely out of place in the lower corridors of the city, where every kid has the look of poverty around him - sagging shirts, dirty faces, unkempt hair, missing teeth, raggedy sneakers, crooked glasses.
No. Duke was broad and handsome, his walk purposeful, his gaze steady, his eyes full of intent. He strode over to me and though I was indeed wary of meeting an odd figure this late in the night, something about him commanded my attention. He had to have been at least seventeen or eighteen, in high school. Maybe college, even. When he spoke, it was softly and sternly.
“Who wants to know?”
“I suppose you’d be somewhat wary of speaking to strangers in the stark open of the night, so I’ll introduce myself. I’m Duke. Just Duke. And you are Rodrigo Ceballos. I‘ve been very much looking forward to meeting you.”
In my grief and my fright, the last thing I wanted to do was make new friends, especially with wackos that appeared in a schoolyard at night. By that time, I was so strung out and tired that I could no longer form cohesive thoughts, but fell prey to every vocative command that sprouted in my mind: “Danger!” “Run!” “Scream!”
“Shut up!” I told myself, though I shouted it aloud.
Duke frowned. “What a rude thing to say to a new friend.”
“Not you!” I sighed. “What do you want?”
“Well, I’m busy, okay?” I turned to wade through the grass, but Duke, with his longer strides, easily overtook me.
“Your family is still fighting,” he said. “Your mother has been arrested; your father taken to emergency care; your sister on her way to the northern sector with your aunt. You will not get in any trouble for waylaying your return just a bit longer. They will say that you are grieving. You will get a free ride, just this once. So I would suggest you use this time to think carefully.”
You hear something like that, something close to prophecy, with all the details about your life, and you just about want to run screaming off into the night. I regarded the young man in front of me with a new level of trepidation. This guy was someone, not your usual, right-on-the-street schmuck. I would have to be careful.
“How do you know about me?”
“It’s something I can do. Like reading a book.”
“You read my face? Like a book?”
He chuckled. “More or less.”
“More or less,” he repeated, shrugging. “All I’m saying is - you’re not going home for a while. You don’t want to wander around here alone. Let me walk with you. I’m not going to hurt you.”
It was this last thing that irked me, this promise of not hurting me, because it implied that he could hurt me if he wanted to. I was never one to be placed at a disadvantage. I hated the idea that there were people in the world who held immense power and influence over the lives of others. This guy was rife with it - power, I mean. I nodded plaintively and we fell into a similar pace, making our way to the schoolyard.
“This is a beautiful city,” said Duke.
“You say that like you’ve never been,” I said. I was determined to find any details I could about this guy.
“I come from up north.”
“North? One of the northern islands?”
“No, beyond that. In Chestard. Just on the other side of Lavina.”
He surprised me with his openness. Chestard had been in the news lately because it was one of the last refuges for people fleeing from Gante, where civil war was mounting like a beast to devour the land. Chestard had been trying to guilt trip the Congregated Islands to assist in their war efforts, but according to our teacher, Mrs. Birch, no one wanted to help a lost cause.
“Is your family still there?”
His face darkened. “No. Not anymore.”
“Did you come here for school?”
“No. I’m finished with school. Actually, I consider myself to be a teacher of sorts.”
“Do you go to college?”
“No. Like I said, I’ve finished with my schooling.” He rubbed his hands together for warmth. “I’m actually working on a project.”
He grinned. “That’ll have to remain a secret until we’re better acquainted.”
“So do you just wander around at midnight finding troubled kids?”
“Something like that.”
“And then what? You kill them? Make masks from their skins?”
He let out a guffaw. “You’ve got some imagination.”
Duke didn’t answer, but instead climbed a set of metal bleachers until he sat on the top rung. I stood on the ground, staring up at him.
“I know you’re going through a tough time. That’s kind of what drew me to you.”
“How would you know?”
“Because I know people,” he said. “Look, man, I’m not trying to tell you what to do, but I just think that you could do a lot better. I mean, your parents obviously don’t appreciate what they have. Guys as young as you shouldn’t be out wandering the streets just because your parents can’t keep it together at home.”
“Why are you up in my business?” I asked, getting angry. Who did this guy think he was?
He smiled. “Someone who’s gone through the same thing. Hey, want to see something?” He clamored down the bleachers and landed in front of me. He produced a stone from his pocket. “You know a lot about space?”
“Yeah,” he indicated upward, at the star-strewn sky.
“What about it?”
He handed me the rock. “This is a space rock, if you can believe it. Came from out there.”
I observed it. It looked like nothing more than a hunk of rock. “I’m not that stupid, man,” I said, handing it back to him.
“No, no. Keep it. It has a few special properties that you might find interesting.”
I shrugged and turned it over and over in my hand, then slipped it into my pocket. I was all about keeping mementos from my more strange adventures. “You’re kind of weird, you know that?”
“I prefer eccentric. Visionary. But I guess I can be a little weird.”
“You still haven’t told me what you’re doing out here.”
“Well, to be honest, I’m searching for someone.”
“You want to help me find them? I know where they are, but, again, it’s kind of dangerous to be out walking alone.”
“Only if you don’t know the neighborhood,” I said with some satisfaction. I was confident, at that age, of my own street-wisdom. What I lacked in book smarts, I liked to think I made up for in plain, common sense.
“C’mon,” he said.
We made our way through the neighborhood. Conversation fell off the table for a bit, and I was glad for it. Despite the suddenness of finding a strange loner at night in our neighborhood, it had done nothing to alleviate the immediacy of my dread. My mom in jail? Dad in the hospital, thinking murderous thoughts about his own two children? It felt like some bad dream, and with the sleep tugging at my eyelids, it felt vaguely dream-like, a feeling which rendered the city around me incandescent and much more magical than it appeared in the daytime. Darkened alleyways led off into magical, hidden worlds. Buildings with lights flickering in the windows were privy to homebrewed sorcery. And this new guy? He seemed on top of it all, as though the world had nothing more that could surprise him.
We made our way across Langley Interstate and into the sodden Barrows, where yards were unkempt, dead stretches between ramshackle, board-and-nail houses. There were a lot of cemeteries.
I don’t know how long we walked, but later on, I would realize that it must’ve been maybe forty minutes to an hour. But he finally paused in front of an abandoned building. It lumbered quietly above us, a four story ash-colored building situated near the freeway. The traffic on the overpass reflected their headlights briefly in the windows, giving the building the appearance of hundreds of blinking one at a time. It looked as though no one had been inside the property for some time. Duke himself regarded it with some hesitance, whispering to himself as he sized it up.
I glanced around. The neighborhood was largely empty. The building had probably been built in an attempt to commercialize an otherwise destitute sector of the city - it looked fairly new - but a lot of those attempts had fallen through. Business on this side of the city went by the wayside when they found that hardly anyone could afford to pay for their light bills or their medication, much less for some hoity-toity service that they had no use for.
“This is it,” breathed Duke after several minutes. “He’s in here. Somewhere.” He went up to the door and went it didn’t budge, he kicked it in with a few well-placed kicks. He glanced back at me. “It’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you.”
Again, with the bravado. “I wasn’t worried about that,” I snapped. “It’s just … filthy. And who hangs around a place like this anyway? Some drug dealer? Some psycho?”
“Or maybe just some poor lost soul.” Duke shrugged. “It happens.”
“You need to tell your friend to find a better place to hang out,” I muttered as I followed him inside.
The bottom floor had been hollowed out, walls torn away, beams strewn across the concrete. Tarps like shrouds hung from exposed beams. Torn insulation bulged from rents in the wall with utter abandon. And, to be frank, the whole place reeked like piss.
Duke strode through the site with the assurance of someone who had been here before. Trailing behind him, I had to jog slightly to catch up. In one of the crumbled back rooms, Duke slowed his pace and approached a plain, wooden desk. “He made it this far,” he murmured, perhaps more to himself than to me. He knelt down by it and reached forward into the darkness. I heard a vague stirring. A soft whimper. And he tugged out the limp, broken body of a boy.
My hesitance was immediately crippled by panic. The boy couldn’t have been more then thirteen or fourteen, maybe even in my grade at the middle school. I crouched down low. His face was riddled with green scars that seemed to throb and breathe of their own accord. His eyes were glazed over, his lips trembled, a light blue, and his breath was haggard and painful. Duke tugged him into his lap and laid one of his huge hands across his chest. “I was almost too late,” he said. I still wasn’t sure who he was talking to.
Me, I was ready to drop. “We gotta call the ambulance! 911! Cell phone! We need a cell phone!”
“There’s nothing they can do for him now,” said Duke. “They won’t even know what they’re looking at.”
“But he’s dying!”
“Perhaps,” said Duke. And then, in a quieter voice, “But that doesn’t mean he can’t still be useful.”
“C’mon.” He rose up, carrying the boy easily, as though he were nothing more than a sack of potatoes. He rushed out the same way we came in. The boy was bleeding droplets from his mouth. As he left, I could see similar trails of droplets smeared across the concrete. The boy must have staggered in here not too long ago. And just collapsed.
Outside, in the night air, I kept getting the feeling that someone was going to see the two of us kneeling there with the sick boy and accuse us of wrongdoing. But we weren‘t doing anything wrong, at least I wasn‘t. Duke was bent over the boy, whispering still, his huge hands pressed firmly against the kid‘s breastplate. After a minute, Duke said very clearly into the dark, “He‘s ready.” I frowned and was about to ask, “What the hell?” when two searing headlights surged on down the street. A car, a station wagon to be specific, glided down towards us, its wheel crunching gravel docilely as he approached. It rolled to a stop. Duke went right up to it and deposited the boy in the backseat. I stood a bit away, and so I could barely see anyone in the car, but for a few fleeting profiles. Duke spoke quickly and quietly and I saw a few heads nod. Then the car slowly puttered away up the road and around the bend.
“Where are they taking him?” I asked, hoping the answer was, “The Emergency Room.”
“He’ll be fine,” said Duke. He turned to me and offered an apologetic smile. “Hey. You did good. Not a lot of people could see that and still keep their heads.”
I wasn‘t sure just what he was referring to - I‘d only been a spectator to the whole incident, but I decided not to address that just now. “What was wrong with him?” I asked instead. “It looked like Ebola, Hantavirus and the Bubonic Plague all rolled into one.”
“It was pretty bad,” admitted Duke. “But thankfully, the disease is not contagious. It only affects a few people and no one is quite sure how it is contracted. But at least the boy can get some help that he needs.”
“They’re friends of mine,” said Duke. He beckoned to me to walk with him. I fell into step beside him as we made our way back to my neighborhood. “We were looking for that boy for a while now. This city is huge.”
“How did you know he’d come here?”
“Like I said. I just know people.”
I glanced back up the road where the car had vanished. I was taking a lot on faith here, but truth was, I didn’t know what to make of this night. What had begun pleasantly enough with me and my sister watching late night trash TV had ended with my mother in jail, my dad in hospital, my sister hauled into another’s custody, and me helping some strange guy rescue a sickly boy. I did not feel like myself. I felt like another person. And I was numb enough that night to believe that I might be changing into another person entirely. I’d read the books, the narratives, heard the stories about children embarking out on adventures. The hero’s journey. The call to duty. And the first thing that had to happen was to leave one’s home behind. One’s little sister. One’s parents.
Before I knew it, I had begun to get choked up again. Duke seemed to sense this and slowed his pace so that we walked side by side. He ushered me silently to the sky track, and we headed up the staircase. He bought himself and me a ticket. I didn’t feel the need to ask where we were going. I knew instinctually that this guy, this Duke, was something else entirely. He knew my life and knew what I was missing and how I was hurting and what I was wishing for.
The cab was empty, thankfully, and with a grinding below our feet, we were off, spinning across the rooftops, a neon circle bound against the night sky.
“Don’t see your dad for a while,” said Duke after a long while. It wasn’t a warning. Just advice. “He meant what he said. He’s always known for as long as you guys were alive, that if the choice came down to himself and his children, he would choose himself. He’s not the man you knew.”
His words fell like rocks inside a tin can; my mind emptied out and in the black hollow, all I could hear were the words clattering around incessantly. I felt angry, angry that Duke apparently thought that he knew my dad better than me, angry that I was accepting Duke’s reasoning without a single instance of disbelief, angry that I had spent thirteen years of my life living with a man who felt nothing for me.
Duke placed his arm around me and gave me a faint hug. In my family, we don’t hug, or kiss, or even shake hands, so the sensation was awkward and unwelcome. I rose up and hung onto the leather bands hanging from the overhead railing. I stared out at the city lights, melting into a endless streak. Duke was beside me.
“I need your help. You have such strength inside you. You don’t even know. You endured your father’s hatred for all these years. Protected your sister. Kept your mother alive and hopeful.”
My heart began to hammer. I could vaguely remember a few things from before. How my father had been so reclusive as to be nearly entirely absent from our lives. My mother crying softly behind the shed in the backyard. Christy hiding in her closet after my father had told her how horrible a child she was. Me being thrown up against a wall after I’d taken one of his cigarettes. I’d said that he’d begun acting like an asshole when he’d turned fifty, but I couldn’t deny this, the fact that he had never been particularly fatherly or loving.
“There are other kids out there,” said Duke. “Kids who will need my assistance, and your’s, too. Kids like that sick boy, who people have forgotten about. We can help them.”
“I don’t think I can …” I said, my voice clenched off by the lump in my throat.
“There’s something coming,” said Duke quietly, so quietly that I almost couldn’t hear him. “To this island. A terrible danger. Look closely at this city. And you’ll see the symptoms. They’re more abundant than you know.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“I think you need to see for yourself. Don’t let them tell you that everything is all right. Because it’s not. Look at your friends. Look at yourself. At the world. See through the illusion.”
I couldn’t say what happened next. It was like I was floating outside of myself, like I’d fallen asleep and the city took on the contours of dream. All I know is the next morning, I woke up in my aunt’s spare room, wrapped in sheets. Christy came in and was prodding at me with a ruler, saying something I couldn’t understand. She was pissed at me, of course, for leaving her alone in that bathroom while I fled. I apologized, but she had never been one to let go of lingering resentment. It would always be a bookmark in the chapters of our lives, how I abandoned her. How she had seen our dad loaded up into the ambulance, our mother handcuffed and stuffed into the police car, and no older brother to hold her hand or hug her.
The whole of the previous night lingered briefly then faded. A few weeks later, I would hard-pressed to say that they even occurred. Duke. The sick boy. His words of prophecy. Perhaps if I had listened more attentively, I’d have started to look around me. Started to see what Duke was talking about. But by that point, I would later learn, it was much, much too late.