“Argh!” I bolt upright, clutching my sheets, my head shaking. Sweat runs down my nose. I hate when it does that. I wipe my face on my blanket. I’m soaked to the bone, covered in my sweat. Gross.
“Hey shut up!” Race smacks my bunk from below. “I’m trying to sleep!”
“You shut up!” I hit back. He snorts before turning over. Rolling my eyes, I notice his precious Corona cigar is missing from his tin cup. I glance over at Albert, who’s mumbling in his slumber.
“I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it, I didn’t-” It’s barely audible, so I’m straining to hear. Of course, Race’s ears never were the best every since he had the brains to stand next to the fireworks during the Fourth of July four years ago. I smile triumphantly. Good for Albert.
I lie on my back, longing for a dreamless sleep. Something peaceful, something I actually gain rest from. I’ll have to get up in two hours, and I’d rather not be catnapping on the job. Still, my anxiety for sleep wakes me up. After about half an hour of trying I hop off my bunk and head for the rooftop.
The moon welcomes me. Big, yellow, shining like a pearl in a sea of smoggy velvet, I let her light embrace me. I once heard that Chang-o, the Moon Lady, the deity who lives there, can grant any wish during Moon Festival. However, you must always keep it a secret.
I’ve wished on the Moon Lady many times, even when her festival is long past. But only one wish has come true. Perhaps my mouth reveals my selfish desires, cancelling them out. Or maybe I’m too sarcastic, too wily for a noble goddess like Chang-o. Then again, she stole her husband’s pill of immortality before it became ripe, which turned her into a frog and landed her on the moon.
Now that I think back to the stories, Chang-o is very similar to me. We’re both thieves whose stealing got us stuck on a place grand and mystical to outsiders, but lonely to us. I stole food for starving boys behind Snyder’s bars; she stole the pill so her tyrannical emperor husband could not become immortal. We’re both unlucky like that.
My one wish, whispered like a prayer on a freezing autumn evening as I stared at her celestial beauty, just as I’m doing now. Moonlight knows no boundaries; it penetrated even the bare cell Snyder threw me in for the night, for causing trouble. My back black and blue, my head throbbing, blood drying on my legs…eyes squeezed shut, I sent my one desire at the time to the Moon Lady. I wished to be free.
I store my drawings, my diary of sorts, in a cylinder someone stuck on the side of the railing. I don’t know its original purpose, I like it fine. A good place for hiding my thoughts, my memories, my hopes.
Now I take a drawing out. On a yellowed sheet smeared with charcoal, a boy lies on the floor, one knee bent upward. His hands shield his face. Casting an ominous shadow on the kid, a grown man in a suit stands, his belt raised above his head. Dark liquid flows from gashes torn into the boy’s skin. I close my eyes, bile rising into my throat. The drawing only shows so much; it doesn’t show the boy suffering in bed for ten days; it doesn’t include the pitiful funeral his bunkmates held.
Oh Timmy, I think. I dreamed about you tonight. Remember how you always said dreams predict the future? Tonight they remembered the past. One I wish I could forget.
Of course, I don’t do these kind of drawings for Miss Medda. She’s a nice lady who’s seen enough of this misery. Perhaps that’s why I respect her; she came from our life: poor, snubbed by society for growing up poor, not to mention the fact her skin is dark and her business is booming. Hell, she even sold papers as a teenager to help her parents put food on the table. Instead of rehashing the past, I paint her fantasies: trees, fairy glades, sunsets over Santa Fe…anything but the stinking Refuge.
The Refuge is a ghost in my mind. Dangerous, dark, a curse I don’t understand that’s haunting me. By day I disappear into the flood of orphans, immigrants- the bottom of the New York food chain, keeping as much distance between the Refuge and myself as possible. But there’s no escaping sleep unless I want to drop dead of exhaustion like my baba, who got thrown out on the curb like yesterday’s newspaper for collapsing on the job. Then the ghosts arrive.
Some nights I see Snyder’s belt flying towards my face, searing my eyes. Other times his boot, his stick, his Billy club, even a porcelain dinner plate! Words from his serpentine mouth flicker in my ear, echoing through its vast fleshy chambers. Most of them I forget when I wake up, but one in particular sticks like a fat leech sucking away my life’s blood, adamantly refusing to be pulled off or shrivel up with some salt.
Chink. As in the weakness in armor, which Snyder found in me. Chink. My slanted eyes, my snake slit eyes. His exact wording. Chink. A foreigner, an illegal, with no place in America. Chink. My eyes still burn whenever I hear it.
I roll up my drawing before laying down on the hard roof. They say you sleep better in soft feather beds, but not me. Hard concrete forces me to lie still, to grow tired enough to fade from the world. Temporarily of course. I considered it not too long ago, but I don’t plan on leaving this world yet.
Clang! Just as I started dozing! I glance up to see Crutchie, good old Crutchie, hobbling toward the fire escape.
“Where ya goin’?“ I demand, perturbed. “What are you..? The bell ain’t rung yet, go back to sleep!“
“I wanna beat the other fellas to the streets,” he explains, concentrating on bracing one foot on a ladder rung. “I don’t want anyone to see that I ain’t, uh… been walkin’ so good.”
“Oh, quit gripin’. You know how many guys fake a limp for sympathy? That bum leg of your is a goldmine!”
“Someone gets the idea I can’t make it on my own, they’ll lock me up in the refuge for good. Be a pal, Jack, help me down!“ He yelps as his foot slips. He’s hanging off the fire escape by one hand. I dash over and yank him back up.
“Hey, you wanna bust your other leg too?” I snap.
“No, I wanna go down.“
“You’ll be down there soon enough. Take a moment, drink in my penthouse.“ I wave my hand at the grimy rooftop. "High above the stinking streets of New York.”
“You’re crazy,” he snorts. Crutchie’s an odd combination between an optimist and a realist. He thinks I’m nuts for wanting to leave New York while simultaneously believing he can survive and succeed in this damned city with a bum leg. His foster family kicked him out for the horrible crime of contracting polio and losing use of his leg at age eight. I thinks both of us were beat the minute we left our dead mothers’ wombs.
“Why, cause I like a breath of fresh air?” I retort. “Cause I like seein’ the sky and the stars?”
“You’re seeing stars alright.”
“Them streets down there, they sucked the life right outta my old man.” I gaze down at the alley, a rotten line of cobblestone littered with trash. “Years a’ rotten jobs, starved on by bosses, and when they found him broken, they tossed him to the curb, just like yesterday’s paper, well they ain’t doin that to me!” I shout to let them know I ain’t some coolie they can work like a mule. Like Baba, who believed hard work could get you anywhere in America.
Oh Baba. You believed you could be an illegal Chinese immigrant one week, but work ethic could take you to Millionaires' Row in Cleveland, Ohio by the next. If only the bosses hadn’t taken advantage of that.
“But everyone wants to come to New York,” Crutchie persists.The Irish, the Germans, even the Chinese who normally stick in San Francisco. Everyone on the ship from China babbled on about how great New York was in the Land of the Gold Mountain. Unsurprisingly, I was the only boy outta the league. I didn’t care for leaving my grandparents, my homeland, everything I knew. I definitely woulda stayed if I knew I’d be hawking headlines and ditching Snyder the Spider ten years later.
“New York’s fine, for those who got a big, strong door to lock it up. I’ll tell you personally. There’s a whole ‘nother way out there. You keep your small life in the big city. Give me a big life, in a small town.”
I close my eyes. This is what I came up here for. I’m no romantic, though I’ve dated a lot of girls. Bad dreams gnaw away at me. Even though I’m not in the Refuge physically, I’m still ensnared in the spider’s web. So I survive it, by combatting it with a good dream, one born out of my mind that no one can take away form. me. One that will actually come true.
“Folks are dying to get here,” I begin. “Me, I’m dying to get away.” Crutchie leans in closer to listen. “There’s a little town out west that’s spanking new, made of clay. It’s so great, you fit right in! No gimp leg, no yellow face, no nothing stops you from making it big in Santa Fe…”
dandelion: if you had a superpower or magical ability, what would you want it to be?
Well my go to answer is usually mind reading/ telepathy because I’m always wondering what people are thinking. Recently though maybe not that I’m thinking it would, hypothetically, probably be very confusing and get old after a while. So maybe water manipulation instead?
buttercup: pastels or bright colors?
Pastels I guess?
honeysuckle: if you were a magician, would you rather live high in the mountains surrounded by flowers, deep in the forest in a mossy fairy glade, or underwater in a coral reef teeming with sea life?
Definitely the forest! Also slight Adam Parrish and Persephone Poldma vibes which I’m here for.