‘Empath’ by Brian Michael Barbeito

Empath

Illustration by Andres Garzon

 

They killed the boy. Not a they, but a single person. ‘They’ is something people say but they mean one person. But words don’t matter.

I know right from looking at the poster of the missing boy that they killed him. The poster is frayed at the sides from the wind and salt air. It’s white. We are at the pier. There are staples along every side of the poster. Old papers have been taken down or lost. I look at the grain of the wood, they look like railway ties. But I don’t know what they are. They are posts. There is a post on the post. We have no money to get on the pier. There is a charge. I think we have lots of money, somewhere, much more money than the average person but maybe not as much as a millionaire. Maybe as much as a millionaire. Yes. Or close to that, but we have no money in the moment. We are in shorts and t-shirts. We didn’t know there was a charge to get on the pier. I won’t die. I fell in the water during the night and got taken out to sea and almost died, but they grabbed me and I lived. That was a long time before. Recently a man, perhaps someone like the one who killed the boy, asked me where I lived. This guy has a wife and two kids playing there. He is what they call clean cut, but he is dark.I lied and told him I lived ‘over there,’ and pointed to a different direction. He knew that I knew he was evil, a bad man, and he smirked and said that, “Oh, I don’t think you live over there, I think you live right there,” and he pointed to where I actually lived. There are many bad people around. Many people who smirk are bad. Not all, but many. I look out to the sea. We head back home along the beach because we brought no money with us. It is a long walk. But a nice one. I feel bad for the boy. He is about my age.

Zenith wants to kiss. She lives in a strange place and smokes cigarettes outside in a chair. She and her friend followed us out of a local supermarket once, and she called us over. I never met anyone that young who smokes. Secondly, I can’t figure out how her parents let her smoke. I don’t ask about it. I actually don’t talk much. But there was a boy on the other pier, and he was fishing and you could see that there were a lot of fish to be caught in this one area. I knew the lines were going to get tangled. This kid was alone. He was native to the area, a white guy with the sandy hair and a permanent tan. He smoked. And he smoked alone, so he wasn’t smoking to show off in front of his friends. The lines got tangled. He said, “I am starting to get pissed. I am starting to get pissed.” He kept saying this. I didn’t like him. He was too old for his age. He didn’t have a good aura but he is not a killer or something like that. He is just a bit of a selfish person. The lines become untangled and we are free of him. He can do what he wants. I kind of like the place and kind of want to get outta there at the same time. I like the night. I don’t always like the people. I can sense who they are: many good, some bad, some very bad. Zenith’s mouth tastes like cigarettes. She is not a very good kisser either. I don’t tell her that. She is beautiful and she is strange. I am strange and I find her strange. So, she must really be strange. We sit in a lot near the fire department on curbings so white they seem to shine in the night. The fire department is in the middle of all the motels. But I guess right there that they have to put the fire department somewhere.

It is morning. There are hurricane shutters on the windows, but they are open, unused. The sun comes in from somewhere over or beyond the Atlantic Ocean. The blimp goes past in the sky but not till a bit later. I forget where I am but then when I realize I am in my room it is like heaven. There will be a lot of trouble in the future. There is not a way that heaven can be much better. Even if it is, I would just as sure stay there in the room. I have my clothing and my homework because I keep going away from school for weeks and they assign me work: Do this chapter, answer questions 3 through 12 on this date, read this chapter on this date and answer only questions 3, 7, and 10. I never did any of it. I never opened a book. I never felt I was from earth in the first place and I definitely was not going to do their work. I was like a visitor. I can see the ships, a couple walking. There are the sounds of footsteps—you know this, you know this and how it is—most people do at some point; the smell of the suntan lotion and the sound continual and calming of the motor from the pool filter. A lizard somewhere on a screen or wall and the light and sun infiltrates all things well.

Sun.

But not for the boy.

Not anymore.

Sometimes my insides ache and it’s like either an otherworldly pain or a very worldly pain. I am not sure which. I go out then and swim in the sea. I have to pass metal railings and green stairways first. That sun is on everything. The sea is full of sand, coral, seaweed. I stand on the shore then sit down. The world becomes full of light but it’s not the light from the sky. It’s another type of light. I know this somehow. And besides, it happens at night. Night is not scary. It is holy. Day is also. Day and night are both good when there is light.

Darkness took the boy.

I go back to the pool. There is a man. He is a good man and he is an old man. He has a British accent. He is talkative. He keeps jumping off the diving board. Though I can swim well, I stay near the shallow end. He is thinking out loud but using me as an excuse to talk. This is what people do around me. I am blank. The most I can figure is two things—that he feels guilty for being there for some reason, and that he must have had a lot of friends or family in his life that were racist. He is fighting against that somehow. He keeps saying, “This here what you got going on is not a normal life. This is a millionaire’s life; this is how a millionaire must live. This is only how a millionaire spends his day.” He must not be a millionaire because he is obsessed with millionaires. Then he says, “If someone enjoys the day with their friend, and the friend is not white but maybe black, then people say, “Why you going along with that guy,” and in the right world you would say to them, “Too bad. He’s my friend and I don’t care and it doesn’t matter and we are friends and that’s it!”’ I just nod. I don’t know anything about it one way or the other. He has a feeling of what it would be like to be rich and to live also in a fair world. Then he disappears, not magically. Just finished his swim, going somewhere out to the beach or into the apartments. I don’t know which.

I am going to find Jimmi. He always used to be game for anything. He was the best at catching lizards and could spot them from far away. He said that some kids from a rival group of skateboarders threw his skateboard into highway traffic. I never knew if this was a story because everything he said was like that. Then, I supposed it could be true. Jimmi and I used to roam around, sometimes with Randi. Jimmi asked me once, right out loud, “Why do you go around with him?” and I just knew, the way you know some things. Randi was a fat kid in Jimmi’s eyes and slower plus uncool. I knocked on Jimmi’s door and his mother opened it. She looked at me and said, “Jimmi don’t live here no more.” My mother used to tell me that the men on the balcony on the top floor of Jimmi’s building were waiting for drugs to wash in from the ocean. She always said, “Look at those men, three men staring all day out to the sea with binoculars. And day in and day out. No way, no way that’s normal. What they are doing is waiting for a large shipment of drugs that was dumped from a boat and is supposed to wash up somewhere near here. When they see it, they will rush down.”I made my way back to the building and found myself in the front lobby because it was spacious and comfortable with long leather couches.

There is an older girl. Her name is Becky. She is about 15. She is talking to her friends. I am just someone’s kid brother or a boy, am practically invisible. She is energetic. We are all in the lobby. She looks older than her age and always has some story to tell. She is explaining to everyone something as I look out the window at green palm trees and the black cement and blue sky. “…and we try to come back in here from the road, and they said come in the car with us, get in the car, we’ll go for a drive…and I say no way, fuck that, I ain’t getting in a car with you, and I didn’t get in the car and they just sit there watching and we came up in here so I ain’t even going out there tonight . . .” And I look back at her and think she is okay—daring, sometimes up to trouble, but will be okay—she has a sense. Street smarts, as they call it.

It’s the boy who is not okay. And they are not talking about him, as in books and stores and movies. People are concerned with themselves, with their own day. But the boy could not protect himself. I know that the boy was good, better than good, and should not have been taken, though nobody should be taken. I try and take a deep breath. We have to go to church. The priest has a voice that is so slow and bored I wonder how he doesn’t fall over. But there is something about the benches and the light from the windows. I just stare around and soon can’t hear anything. There is an abandoned porch or something out there, by the wild trees whose names I don’t know. Later, Zenith will stand there with me. She says, “Does it bother you that I smoke?” No,” I lie, but it’s not exactly a lie. It’s cool overall. I don’t know. Her friend comes, a girl from England. Something is bothering Zenith but I don’t know what and will never know. They say goodbye and walk off, in a good way. I never see any of them again. Nothing bad happened, we just went separate ways.

I go back down the street and follow the grasses. There is no sidewalk and the walking is slightly dangerous, but people walk there anyway. One lady appears in the middle of the street, well dressed and either drugged or drunk. The cars stop to help and a man gets angry. “This is not a game!” he screams. He keeps calling out. What the hell does he want them to do, I wonder, let her get killed? I think to myself then the world is sunny but it is also a bad place. Then when some women try to calm and direct and help her, she gives them the middle finger, which makes everything about the world more complicated. I leave and go down to the sea, cutting across the restaurant parking lot. I am isolated but know I will be safe there and secure. I watch my favorite things, which have little or nothing to do with what the others like. I watch the curbs, white and shining, and the lights from the restaurant, how they are positioned just so. The trees they have planted have green palm leaves and, in the nights, lights shine on the trunks. It’s better than anything.

But I know the boy is dead.

Somehow, I head back to the gates that enter the pool area. There are old men coming back from swimming; towels, light conversations, easiness, no problem.

Later we are near the pier but in stores. The sun is bright. T-shirts with iron-on prints are popular. The smell of the store is beautiful—something about the fresh shirts, the ironing machine on nylon or cotton or whatever it is. I stand near a stucco wall and there is a teenager, a group, near a pickup truck parked where there is no parking allowed, practically in the doorway of a store, and the truck has a sticker that reads, “If it’s tourist season, why can’t we kill them?” These are rough people: shirtless, tanned boys, and girls in bathing suits. The leader puts his hand on one of the girl’s shoulders and says, “You left the party without saying goodbye last night.” She doesn’t answer. She looks down at the ground. I walk away, enter the t-shirt store. I look through the book of iron-on prints: surfboards, the sea, the sun, musical bands, sayings, all kinds of things. Then I see the one I want, a skull with snakes and flowers all around it. It should go on a black shirt, I think, but my mother reads my mind. Not really–not like I can sometimes read minds, but probably because I have stopped the page there.

She freaks. “You are NOT getting that. You are NOT wearing that. I am NOT buying that. If you think you wearing a shirt with a skull and snakes you can think again –NOT a chance.” I don’t say anything. I pick out something with an ocean and a sun and they make up the shirt and she pays and we leave and I am happy enough. There is a dive shop and I am obsessed with how the watches look. There is a red marker on all diver watches that is from the zero to twenty-minute mark. I watch the mechanical bridge go up. It leads to the intercoastal waterway. The sun is shining again, so brightly, upon everything. I wanted the shirt with the skulls. We walk into the day and disappear into the other stores and then the streets and the larger world, and my gift grows but it’s a good thing because the world is, although pretty, often also pretty bad. I am okay, but I am also restless. They find the boy soon. He was taken and killed. Someone took the posters at the pier down shortly after that.

 


BRIAN MICHAEL BARBEITO is a Canadian nature poet and landscape photographer. He is the author of Chalk Lines (Fowl Pox Press, 2013).

Copyright © 2019 by Brian Michael Barbeito. All rights reserved.