By: Arlinda Vaughn, ~3500 words
“Girl, it was a spectacle in the street in the old neighborhood near Gary’s. This one ugly fat ghetto girl got mad at this other girl for looking at her man. So the fat girl gets all up in the other girl’s face telling her that she needs to keep her eyes somewhere or another.” I rolled my head in imitation of the fat girl. “The other girl is just standing there looking all confused. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure she was even looking at that fat girl’s man… Anyway, all of a sudden the fat girl … and I mean she was nasty fat … just jigglin’ everywhere … starts hitting the other girl, knockin’ her to the ground. She’s punching and stomping all on her … Well, I didn’t see the end because my bus came, but that girl must have been in some serious pain.”
“When did this happen?” Xandria asked.
“About an hour ago.”
“You didn’t do anything?” she asked, disapproval draped across her face.
“She wasn’t hitting me,” I said. What did Xandria expect me to do? This wasn’t my friend or family. It was not my place.
“Was anyone else there?”
“Just me and the man she was fighting over.”
“Did you at least call the police?”
“No. I have a personal policy to keep myself out of other people’s business,” I explained. Besides, no one ever calls the police. The police in Seaterville are just as likely to arrest the person seeking help as they were the person doing the crime. The police were often even worse than the criminals. Neither guilt nor innocence mattered when it came to your life or your property. I remembered when the police stole Uncle Pa Pa’s life savings that he once kept in his mattress. He fought them in the courts and never spent a single day in prison, yet they refused to return his money, claiming that they had “strong evidence that it was gained illegally”. No, the police were not an option.
“Nandhi, that sounds so cold,” she said under her breath.
“Yeah, well…” I shrugged.
I loved her like a sister, but we never saw eye to eye on these things. She was a girl of compassion and conscience. A part of me wished that I could be so innocent – that I could have grown up like she did, in suburbia shielded from the real world – but I did not have that luxury. I had to become stone or I never would have survived.
I will admit, though, that I almost felt something inside of me when I heard that girl’s bones crack, when she stopped crying and whining and went completely silent. For a moment I wanted to beg the boyfriend to do something. He was the one directly involved, not I. He could have interfered; instead he pulled out his cell phone and recorded. If he wouldn’t do anything, how could I? It all didn’t matter. I forced this momentary lapse out of my mind. I detached and suddenly the entire scene became a moment of immense entertainment as if I were watching a movie.
I was entertained by her misery.
Did this make me evil? I did not know. Perhaps. But what was so grand about being abnormally noble? One always heard of someone protecting some stranger only to end up with a bullet in the head. Those who are filled with extreme compassion for others, like my friend Xandria, either act in ways that put themselves in jeopardy or are consumed by things which are completely beyond their control. Life presented too many personal challenges to be overly concerned with someone else’s problems.
I refused to be vulnerable. I refused to feel. I refused to hurt.
“Xandria, I have to go home. I have an exam tomorrow and it’s already 9 o’clock. I need to study.”
“Okay. Talk to you tomorrow.”
I listened to the night sky as I walked home from Xandria’s. Its words were calm in sharp contrast to those at that bus stop in Seaterville. Since the day that I was born in Seaterville, I could smell the anger in the night air. It had the odor of helplessness that was enough to make the most loving individual insane with fury.
I was one of the few lucky enough to escape before its toxins could take effect. The rest were worthy of pity. The inhabitants were for the most part destitute and ignorant. They were not morally deficient by nature; it was this place. A handful of people, like my mother, still had a light behind their eyes. They remained filled with some blind hope that the neighborhood would somehow be revitalized. They believed that somehow the school districts would improve, the property values would increase, the murders would end, and the drugs would evaporate from the landscape.
I had hope once. I remembered the sound my shoes made as they clicked across the tile floors of the old apartment building. I was helping my mother put my toys into my aunt’s olive-green van, which was nearly filled with boxes. The familiar smell of cigarettes and beer attacked me each time I entered the building. However, I did not mind because we were finally leaving. My mother had gotten a government job and now we could afford to move anywhere we wanted.
This hope vanished when I realized that we were moving only a few blocks away. Though many years had passed, my mother and I still argued about this decision. I told her that eventually the city would improve, but she would suffer until it does.
“This is our home,” she would say. “I will not abandon it like everyone else did just because I make a little money. Think about it, baby. How powerful would we be if we just worked together… invested in our community… instead of always running over to theirs as soon as we got a dime? Nandhi, what if all those people with money had just stayed?”
Well, momma, they didn’t.
I needed the crisp night air near my university to cleanse my spirit after my visit home. It’s funny how much difference a thirty-minute bus ride can make.
It was abnormally cold for April, but I enjoyed seeing my breath float away on the wind. The clouds above had parted leaving a clear, unobstructed view of the nearly full moon and those glistening stars. My apartment building approached a little too quickly as I walked from Xandria’s. However, because I did need to study, I forgave it. I was sitting at my desk enjoying the solace of my bedroom when the phone rang.
“Nandhi, turn to channel four,” Xandria said.
“I need to study. Why don’t you tell me about it later.” I was on track to making the dean’s list again. This required discipline.
“No, girl, you need to see this now.”
I turned on the television and caught the middle of a news report about a murder in my hometown. Authorities found a body in a vacant lot on Kinker Road across from Gary’s Liquor Store. The victim, an honor student at a local junior college with twin sons, had died from a broken neck. Her name was Gloria Stone.
I dropped the phone.
Why was this affecting me? I was stronger than this.
I remembered when I saw Kurt being shot from my bedroom window; I didn’t react. When they discovered Nicole’s raped and disfigured body in weeds near my grandmother’s home, I had no emotional response. Even when Keisha was beaten to death, nothing really; I remained calm. I knew these people. Why would the death of some stranger mean anything to me?
People die all of the time.
Her name was Gloria…
I did not want to study anymore. Spanish could wait. I lay in the bed with the hope that slumber would rescue me from this state of mind, but it would not. The sight of Gloria’s broken body followed me. Her cries, the scent of the air that night, the sound of her bones cracking – they were with me in my dreams. I begged to wake up, but the god of the dream world refused to let me escape. He, like the God in heaven, wanted me to suffer. Maybe they were working together.
Then my dreams left the scene of her death and moved to a place with no smell, taste, nor feeling. Nothing about this world was tangible, yet it felt more real than anything I had ever encountered. In this white world of pure and absolute substance, a council of spirits appeared before me. I knew nothing of this place and nothing of these beings, but I did know that I desperately wanted to leave.
“Who is the entity which stands before us?”
“What… What…” I stammered.
“Who are you?!” bellowed a voice so low and deep, that I could do nothing but respond.
“Nandhi Hilliard,” I replied instinctively.
“How do you plead?”
“Excuse me? Am I on trial? I have done nothing wrong.”
“You deny that you neglect the welfare of others due to your own selfishness? We have patiently watched you over the years, giving you opportunity after opportunity to redeem yourself. Each time you have failed. You have witnessed horrendous acts against your fellow man without even the attempt to aid. This council finds this despicable. How do you plead?” The judge’s voice caused the entire dreamscape to shake.
I too was shaken.
“I … I have done nothing wrong. I have never harmed a single human being in my entire life.” I tried to be strong, but I could not hide my fear.
I didn’t understand. They have been watching me for years. Years. Were they blaming me for what happened? I was so young then. What could I have done? Most importantly, why were they making me remember? I didn’t want to remember…
“Your utter lack of action has been as detrimental as any act you could have done. You have refused to care; therefore, we will make you feel. This court sentences you to a life of empathy.”
“I don’t understand.”
I awoke at 7 AM. I still had four hours to study for my exam. However, no matter how desperately I tried, I could not take my thoughts off those faceless entities that had condemned me. Logic said that it was only a dream, but it unnerved me still.
I made it to the exam only to be distracted by a new pain in my side. I hoped that I did not have the same medical condition as Professor Thomas, who had shared with us way too many details about her cyst just before the exam. Later, after more than two hours at Health Services on campus, I was given a clean bill of health. I had never had pains this intense before, but because they went away, I dismissed my concerns for the moment.
The entire day I had a malady of ailments, from intense pains lasting only moments to sneezing attacks though I had no allergies. I had even fallen asleep in the courtyard right next to my friend Casey, who never slept. Why was I this tired? I could not explain it.
I missed the rest of my classes when exhaustion forced me back to my apartment to lie down. For the first time that entire day, I felt at peace. I laid in silence, but all of a sudden, I did not feel tired at all. The sunset and I sat at my open window breathing the cool air. Soon I was looking out over the quiet tree-lined street at the beautiful crescent moon. I looked down spying into the windows of the people who were peacefully living on the lower floors in other apartment complexes.
Suddenly, a loud argument, which erupted between a couple on the second floor in a neighboring apartment building, disturbed this tranquility. It disrupted my peace giving me an unbelievable headache.
Then I saw the man hit the woman. As he did, I felt the sting across my face and a tear roll slowly down my cheek. My heart was beating rapidly.
This wasn’t supposed to happen in this neighborhood. This place was supposed to be better. Safe.
The wife cowered in a corner, but he was relentless. I didn’t want to watch anymore but I was compelled to do so. He kept hitting her and hitting her until I felt my scull split and I tasted the thick, salty blood in my mouth.
“Stop it!” I screamed. He didn’t listen. He kept punching her until I felt the stone from his ring cut through the flesh of my cheek.
“Stop!” He ignored me. If only he could hear me, I knew this would be over. I doubled over from the impact that cracked her ribs, before pulling myself erect again. I desperately wanted to leave the window. I knew that if I weren’t aware, then I wouldn’t feel. I could crawl under my sheets and hide within its cocoon. Unfortunately, my hands were fixed at that window frame and my eyes upon her body. My throat grew sore from screaming so intensely.
I pounded the window to get his attention. I could not control myself. My knuckles bled as I cracked the windowpane, but he would not stop. The glass shattered piercing my hand. I continued to swing and I screamed. I was willing to do anything to stop this pain. I leaned out of my third floor window wailing my arms hysterically at a man I had never met.
Why wouldn’t he stop?
Before I knew what was happening, I was falling. The earth approached me with increasing speed, but even it was a welcome alternative to the pain of his fist. I laid on the cold damp earth unable to move, breathe, or understand what had just happened to me. Yes, I survived, but I wanted to die. By the time my breath returned a young woman was already standing over my body. The ambulance arrived minutes later.
“Talk to me. Where does it hurt?” the driver of the ambulance said to me.
Was he blind? Couldn’t he see?
He checked my vitals before focusing on my only physical signs of damage: my broken leg, my broken arm, and the shards of glass in my hands. With the arm that moved without pain, I touched my face. My skin was soft and smooth. Sweat and tears replaced the blood that I had felt on my cheeks and in my eyes.
The hospital tortured me. My ailments changed with each hospital bed that passed me in the emergency room. I could not stop myself from crying and they had to restrain me. I had lost all control.
I cursed the demons that had sentenced me. I did not deserve this.
“Baby are you okay?” my mother asked. I reached for her with earnest sincerity. I was so happy to see her walk in.
“Momma, I can’t take this anymore.”
“Momma, I feel everything. I don’t want to feel anything anymore. Momma, please tell your God to stop this. He’s supposed to be omnipotent, right? He could stop them from doing this to me. Please momma, I can’t take it anymore.”
“Who you talkin’ about?”
“The spirits in my dreams are doing this to me. They are mad at me, but I didn’t do anything. I’m damned, momma.”
She hugged me so intensely that for a moment I felt as if nothing could harm me. This feeling soon fled.
“I don’t know what you are talking about, but I am going to help you,” my mother said. Then she turned to the doctors. “What’s wrong with my little girl?’’ I was twenty years old and still her little girl.
“Mrs. Hilliard, she apparently broke her window and jumped,” one of them replied. I turned my head away from her to look out the window into the black sky. There was no use trying to explain anything to these people. Besides, looking at the doctor’s skin made my face itch.
“She’s suffered a broken arm and a broken leg,” the doctor continued. “Her hands are also badly cut. Otherwise, she’s fine. No internal or spinal damage.”
“Thank God,” she replied before instinctively grabbing the gold cross on the chain that always hung from her neck.
My mother practically lived in the hospital for the next couple of days. When they released me to her care, she took me back to Seaterville, where I sat in my old bedroom for weeks with the windows shut and the radio and television off. My mother thought the air would do me well, but I refused to leave using my healing limbs as an excuse. I didn’t want to know what was happening in this neighborhood. My father called from prison a few times to check in on me. I definitely didn’t want to hear any of those stories.
I finally explained to my mother in great detail the sentence that I had received and what they claimed I had done wrong. The pastor visited me regularly, but seeing no progress, my mother decided to take me to a psychiatrist. I left my home wearing a black piece of cloth over my eyes and earplugs that I had made out of rubber erasers.
“This is Dr. Schilling. I want you to talk to him about your problem.”
I did not trust psychiatrists. Psychiatrists take children from their parents over nothing and put things on record that authorities use against them later. Yet, because I had promised my mother, I hesitantly told him the whole story.
“I think I may know the source of the issue,” my mother said. “Her big sister was beaten to death almost a decade ago in front of her eyes.”
I don’t want to remember.
“Nandhi couldn’t do anything to save her. I believe she never forgave herself.”
My mother was stroking my hair, her fingertips passing in between my twists.
Why did she bring Keisha into this? She had nothing to do with this; it was those damned demon judges.
The psychiatrist believed that the best thing for me would be to stay at a hospital which specialized in mental disorders. My mother agreed. Maybe I was crazy.
I wanted nothing to do with this world, except for my mother’s touch.
From this perspective my room at the hospital was nearly perfect. The air reeked of antiseptic and old people, but it was a wonderful place to hide. I did not risk hearing or seeing anything. My only contact to the outside world was my mother and occasionally Xandria.
I was finally at peace, or so I thought. It was not long before I realized that the white walls were depriving me of the distractions that I had come to rely upon, such as schoolwork and hobbies. Whatever mental gymnastics I attempted, I always failed to escape my thoughts and the ancient memories that I had long tried to bury.
Moreover, guilt weighed so heavily in my chest that it caused an unnatural ache. My mother had already lost her first child. I had even chosen a university close to home so that she wouldn’t be alone. Now I was leaving her too and my father wasn’t there this time to comfort her. I felt the effect on her, but she wouldn’t let me see any outward sign. She had always been so strong.
I, on the other hand, was a coward.
The staff encouraged me to explore, but August came before I would finally, willingly, step outside of my hospital door. I leaned against the wall with eyes closed allowing my body to be pelted by waves of other patients’ pain. I felt surgical blades slice through my stomach and blood stream down my neck. I sneezed. I itched. I throbbed. I cried out. But I stood.
“Momma?” someone cried. I opened my eyes and looked down into the eyes of a boy who looked to be about five years old. The chaotic ward terrified us, but no one came to help. We felt lost and alone.
“Hi, little man. Are you okay?” I asked.
“I can’t find my momma.”
“What is your name?”
“Well, Bobby, let’s see if we can find her.” As he placed his hand in mine, we grew more comfortable. We walked slowly through the waves towards the nurse’s station.
“Bobby?!” called a man from the end of the corridor.
“You can’t be doing that, boy!” he said. I felt his mixture of anger and relief, then finally his elation as the boy jumped into his arms. The father was only a couple inches taller than I, but through Bobby, I knew that he was also a giant, a protector.
“Thank you,” the man said, still holding his son.
I felt how much Bobby loved this man.
Love. People felt this too. And joy and gratitude and hope…. Even in Seaterville.
I had almost forgotten.