Staring around the group of people that surround me, I want nothing more than to walk right out through the same way I came in. There are twelve of us, which is eleven more than I had hoped for and twelve more than I can deal with.
The man in front of us drones on, mega-watt smile permanently plastered to his face as he explains the ‘job’ we are going to do.
I nod and smile, pretending to listen to him. He’s none the wiser to the music blasting in my ears. I chose Metallica today to match my mood. Pissed off at the world.
Despite his firm requests for me take off my hoodie, I have kept the hood up. I do not need for any of these morons to recognise me somewhere else.
I manage to catch the final words of the man’s speech. And they make my already miserable mood plummet.
“Here at the Happy Sunny Charity, we believe in the values of love, tolerance, and friendship. Which is why I am pleased to inform you that during your period working with us, you will be assigned partners to with.”
“If I wanted friends I would have gone to a bar, ” I grumble under my breath.
A quiet snort behind me tells me that someone overhead my comment.
Discreetly, I turn my head backwards to get a glance at the person. It’s a boy. Not just any type of boy, an attractive one. But his attractiveness is not in the rugged way I usually appreciate in males, he’s smooth, soft. But not babyish. There’s something innocent about his features. Like he does not belong here. I capture all of this in a quick glance. I do not want him to think I am staring at him.
The man in front begins to speak. He mentions the names of the people who surround me. I do not pay attention until he says one that is familiar. “Wilder Sanchez, you’ll be working with Abraham Bennett.”
The man has finished something. I remain in my seat, watching everyone shuffle around. The HelloMyNameIs tag that was given to us at the entrance is stuffed in the denim depths of my jean pockets.
I will not be identifiable. Everyone seems to have found their partner. I am quite content that I do not have one. I am thinking of the words I will say to the man in front when someone clears their throat behind me.
I turn around, letting my hood drop as I stare at the guy.
It’s the boy who laughed at my joke. The boy with the blue eyes.
He’s more attractive now that I have the time to stare at him. He is taller by a foot. His features are strong and masculine with an Australian lip and Grecian nose, his complexion olive, his countenance erect. His body and limbs are well-proportioned, all his motions are graceful with a saintly deportment.
When he smiles, it feels like the room has gotten warmer somehow.
“Hi, I’m Abraham Bennett. Everyone calls me Abe.”
I stare at him. I’m not speechless. I just don’t know how to respond to his words.
“You must be Wilder, ” he continues, charming smile in place.
“How do you figure?” My voice is rougher than I remember. Perhaps I should not have turned down the offer for coffees when I came in earlier. I clear my throat.
“You are the only other person without a partner in this room. Unless I’m wrong?”
“No, ” I say. “But please call me Eli.”
You must be wondering. How does one coin the nickname Eli from the name Wilder? Well, that’s a story for another day.
“So, Eli, ” his voice is airy and soft when he says my name. I never feel comfortable when people test my name on their tongue for the first time but with him its almost natural. “Are you ready for us to begin?”
“Yep, ” I answer, popping the p.
Together, we walk out of the building. The group had already gone ahead of us and I can see them receiving tools from the supply shed nearby.
“So what got you here?” Abe asks as we accept the packet of seeds, gloves, and trowels from the man who had been leading us. I wish to remember his name so I won’t have to continue referring to him as ‘the man’ but it seems my short attention span has cost me that privilege.
I focus my eyes on Abe as I pull on my yellow rubber gloves. “Where are we working?” I ask the man.
He looks at my left breast for my name tag, finds none, and shifts his gaze to Abe. “Wilder and Abraham. You will be working on the sixth plot to your right. It’s labelled with your names on a wooden arrow board. That’s how we identify which groups are slacking off and those who are taking this seriously.”
I nod. With a trowel in one hand and a pouch of seeds in the other, I head towards the plot he had been talking about.
I stand in the middle of the empty patch of land, ready to begin the gardening work. I’m about to hack away into the soil when Abe stops me.
“I think we should measure the land to make our plot evenly spaced.”
I hope my face does justice to the incredulity brewing in me. “You’re kidding.”
“I am one hundred per cent serious. The spacing between the plants will be crucial to their access to sunlight, penetration of air between the plants and even the flow of roots beneath the surface. All of these are very essential elements to ensure the successful growth of the plants.”
I have known Abraham Bennett for ten minutes and I have learnt one very important thing about him. He’s a nerd. It explains why his face is so innocent and soft but it does not explain the lack of glasses and the fact that he’s cute.
Ignoring his earlier words, I drop to my knees and begin digging into the soil.
“Can I get some of those seeds?” Abe asks.
“Uh, help yourself,” I answer.
“Thank you, ” he says a lightly-tanned muscular arm reaching for the seeds.
“Sure, ” I reply, finally creating a hole big enough to plant the first seed.
“Why haven’t you answered my question?” Abe asks making a huge effort to make the hole right- broad and slanted the way out supervisor had shown us earlier.
“What question?” I ask, covering up the first hole and crawling a few feet away to start another. This time, I’m using the plastic spade Abe picked up for us.
“I destroyed public property. A night of tagging with friends ended up nearly burning down the biomedical research lab at the university. That’s the crime I committed. I’ve shared. Your turn.”
I pause what I am doing, not sure what to say to that. I can very well tell him the truth but tagging state property is on a whole different scale from illegal trade in knives. My crimes are considered especially heinous. I’m the Devil’s spawn. I don’t want to taint this boy’s soul. So I choose the safest answer. The simplest answer in fact.
I shrug both shoulders. “Eh.”
“It’s your loss not telling me,” he says solemnly, patting the little mound of soil after sowing his own seed.
A single shoulder shrug and I’m back to planting.
“I’ll estimate that the distance between these two seeds is about three feet. Let us try to maintain that gap so everything will look symmetrical, okay.”
For the next ten minutes, we are both silent, dedicated to our duty. I hate silence. But unfortunately, I left my earbuds in my satchel on the bench inside the building. And I do not want to have to talk to ‘the man’ again.
“You said you were caught tagging with friends. What did you spray-paint?”
Abe seems surprised by my sudden question. He takes a minute to confirm that I am indeed talking to him before composing his reply.
“It’s actually kind of embarrassing.”
Now he has my attention. “Spill, ” I command.
“You tagged a building with your name?” I can’t help the snort. “What a rookie move.”
“I’m not much of an artist. What about you?”
“I like to sculpt every once in a while, ” I answer. Abe smiles at me and I realise my mistake. Unknowingly, I have revealed something about myself to him.
“Maybe one day I’ll show you the painting I made,” he suggests, cute smile in place.
Two hours later, the man dismisses us. I have finished three of my two hundred hours of community service.
I slip on my hoodie even though it’s the middle of the day and stuff my earbuds into my ears. The loud music ricochets within my ear canals and creates an ache in my head I have grown to live with. I’m listening to Coldplay as I walk to my home.
A quick stop at MacDonald’s for a sack of greasy food and a pack of beer, then I begin the journey home.
One year ago, I lived with my older brother Lucas. I was raised by Lucas when my father went to prison for killing my mom. Lucas witnessed the murder, he was nineteen at the time. I was only two years old, so I don’t remember much of it. Dad went to prison and Lucas adopted me. He raised me like a father. I’ve visited my biological father once while he has been in prison. That was on my sixteenth birthday. It’s one of the memories I’ll rather forget.
If Lucas is such a great older brother, why am I now living alone? The answer is simple. Two years ago, he started dating this leech called Vanessa or Vincentia or something along those lines. I thought their relationship was not serious. I hoped it was not serious.
But then Lucas started blowing me off to hang out with her. When she got pregnant and he proposed to her I knew that was the end of my relationship with my older brother. I packed up my stuff and left. For the first two days, I slept on the street. One day Lucas intercepted me and gave me an offer.
That was when I started living at my current place. Lucas pays all the bills and gives me monthly allowances. In exchange, I go to school and try my best to keep my grades above average.
But after I got arrested, Lucas found out I’ve been using drugs and he reduced my allowance so I can only afford what I need. It’s become much harder for me to pay my dealer, who also happens to be a former high school classmate of mine.
Jake dropped out in freshman year. We met at a bar and he introduced me to the world of dope. I’ve taken LSD, meth, Mary Jane and dope. But the substance I am truly hooked to is Ecstasy.
I call Jake and we meet in the back alley of my dilapidated apartment building. In the safety of my apartment, I swallow four pills and wash it down with booze.
I finish off my cheeseburger and take two more pills of Xanax with some more cheap beer. The combination of booze and pills leaves me lightheaded and blissful.
Despite what most people think about drug addicts, I actually know what the pills are doing to me. The Xanax is a prescription drug for my panic attacks. It helps calm me down. I started taking the ecstasy to go with when I realised I was becoming immune to the anxiety pills.
The MDMA increases levels of serotonin and dopamine. It alters my mood and makes me feel... What’s the word? Joyous. I feel alive after taking my daily pills. It certainly helps me to focus on my sculpting which I do in the living room.
My apartment building is simple enough. There is a bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. I have a bed, wardrobe and desk in my bedroom. The living room is decorated with my sculpture equipment and a set of plastic folding table and chairs. There’s a fridge and a stove in the kitchen. But I don’t cook and my fridge is almost always empty.
The faucet doesn’t drip, the painting isn’t chipped inside and the door has a lock. Not a bad place for an unemployed seventeen-year-old.
With a bottle in hand, I go to my room. There are homework books scattered on my bed, I contemplate finishing the history project I have due tomorrow. The thought makes me laugh out loud. I finish the bottle an light a joint, grabbing a hoodie and stepping out of the building. At first, I never locked my door. I didn’t think there was anything worth stealing inside.
Until someone stole my sofa while I was at school. I didn’t get a new one, but I had learned my lesson.
The roof of the building provides excellent views of the starless sky overhead and the slum I live in beneath. New Jersey is a beautiful city, but the southeast is crap. A rat scurries past me, and I laugh as I watch it hide under a pizza box.
“This is my life!!” I scream into the darkness of the night. This is who I am. This is who I have become. I’m not sure whether I like it.
In spite of the hoodie, the weather feels too chilly, and I decide to retire for the night. I’m pretty sure I turned off the music but there’s a loud thumping in my eardrums as I begin to stagger back into the building. I don’t know how I make it to my apartment in one piece.
Stumbling over clothes and school books lazily strewn over the surface of my bedroom, I topple on the bed in a heap of tired bones.
The last thought that crosses my mind as my head hits the pillow and I drift into the sweet nothing of unconsciousness could have a jarring effect on my mind if I were sober.
Is this who I want to be?
I have never met a girl like Eli.
She’s not beautiful, not in the aristocratic blonde hair, blue eyes way.
No, she’s interesting. That’s the most fitting word to describe her.
She has long red hair and the deepest brown eyes I’ve ever seen. She never smiled during our interaction, and I can tell it’s nothing personal. She does not strike me as the happy obedient kind.
There’s something wild about her.
Wild Wilder, it’s actually funny when I think about it. I think I’ve been thinking about it too much. That’s why I have to ask my father to repeat his statement.
He does, unhappily. “I asked how was your day, Abraham.”
My father is the only person in the world who can get away with addressing me by my full name.
“It was fine, ” I play with my food. My mother is a good chef and I don’t want to offend her but the truth is that I am not really hungry.
“You gonna eat that?” Josh asks, pointing a silver fork at an untouched piece of shallow fried chicken on my plate. Josh is my little brother. He’s younger only by a few months.
We are both seniors at Westreet Prep. I have an older sister and an older brother as well. Tim is married and Esther is going through medical school.
“Nope,” I slide the plate over to him.
Dad frowns discouraging at me. “Eat your own food, boy.”
If I got a penny for every time my dad addresses us as ‘boy’, not ‘son’ I’d be a millionaire.
Josh pouts, returning my plate to me.
I sigh. There’s no escaping my father.
“How was the community garden, honey?” Mom asks, smiling brightly.
“Considering the fact that I was ordered to work there I’ll say it wasn’t too bad.” It’s hard to keep the bitterness out of my voice.
My father glares at me. “Do not speak to your mother like that.”
“It’s fine, Henry.” Mom sighs, raising a hand to silence him.
The way my mother always defends me against my father makes me feel guilty. That is why I answer her question. “We were made to work in pairs.”
“Who was your partner?” Josh asks through a mouthful of chicken.
“Chew your food, boy,” dad instructs.
Josh rolls his eyes. My father’s eyes narrow. I avert the near clash with an answer to his question.
“This girl called Wilder Sanchez.”
“Red hair, blue hoodie?” Josh asks.
How does one accurately one’s outfit just from their name?
“Yes,” my voice mirrors the surprise I feel. How does Josh know Eli?
“She’s in my art class.” Is he a mind reader now?
“That’s nice,” mom adds, her kind features smiling at me.
“I don’t think now is the time to be thinking about girls, ” dad cuts in. “You should be focusing on your education. On your future. You’ll need a clean mind and heart to join the Navy.”
“I already told you, dad. I’m not joining the army.” My voice is tired.
My father was an army chaplain. He seems to think joining the Army is the only way I will learn how to truly become a man. He was disappointed when neither Tim nor Esther enlisted.
He has set his hopes on my following in his footsteps. He does not say it directly but I’m pretty sure he will disown me when he finally realises I will not be joining the army.
Dad’s eyebrows furrowed in determination. “You’ll change your mind.”
“No, I won’t.”
“The army is what shaped me into the man I am today. And it is what is going to shape you into the great man I know you are going to be-”
“I going to my room, ” I sigh, pushing my chair backwards and standing up.
“Don’t you dare walk out that door Abraham. I am not finished talking to you.”
“But I’m done listening, ” with that final statement dropped, I walked out of the dining roof and climbed up the stairs to my room.
My father has always been strict. But I know he loves me. I just don’t get why he can’t accept that I’m not joining the army.
I’m still seething when there’s a knock at the door.
“Go away, ” I mumble.
“Open the damn door, Abe. I’m not your mommy.”
“What do you want Josh?” I ask while standing up and walking towards the door.
It swings open in my face, nearly hitting my nose.
Josh walks in. “You forgot your dessert.”
“Did mom send you here to talk to me?”
“No one sent me, Abe. You know how dad behaves pisses me off too. The difference, is I don’t go tagging with my friends because he upsets me.”
“Was that supposed to make me feel better?” I ask, going to sit next to Josh on the couch. He offers me the plate if brownies, I try one.
“No, it wasn’t.” I’m not sure whether to appreciate his honesty. “What’s up with you and Eli?” He asks.
The question surprises me. “Bro, we just met.”
“I know. I mean, what do you think of her?”
“I think she’s lonely.”
“Aren’t we all?”
“Come on, Josh. Let’s play.” I get up from the couch and move to the television set. After a minute of reconnecting wires and adjusting the settings, I grab my gamepad and go and sit next to Josh on the couch.
“What are we playing?” He asks through a mouthful of brownies.
I wrinkle my nose, chuckling nonetheless. “Chew your food, man.”
The TV screen lights up with the logo for Sony, then Nintendo. Playing Mario Kart with my little brother Josh is easily the best kind of therapy for me. Especially since I’m undefeated. Josh says it is because we always use my game console but I believe its because I truly am an expert.
“Three, ” Josh starts the count down to match the numbers on the screen.
“Two.” We exchange a look. My heart rate has spiked. I can already feel the adrenalin from the race.
We chorus the final number. “One.”
Let the games begin.