Twenty Years Ago...
“What's up, Carter?”
I look up from my book, annoyed at the sudden interruption, to see Gary standing there looking at me. He's the closest thing I have to a friend, but I don’t really like him all that much. He does what I say – usually without questioning me – so, he's not completely useless.
And, if I'm being honest, having a conversation with him from time to time is better than pure solitude all day, every day. I can only stand the sound of my own voice – of being trapped inside my head – for so long.
“What do you want, Gary?” I ask.
“New kid's getting his ass kicked,” Gary says, a wide, gap-toothed grin on his face.
“They're on the field out back.”
Field is a pretty generous description for the twenty-by-twenty dirt lot that butts up against the back of the home. But, when you're an orphan, you take what you can get. It's not like we have much of a choice in the matter anyway, so we make the best we can with what we got. Which really don't amount to shit.
“Who's doing the beating?” I ask.
“Luke,” he said.
I sigh and shake my head as I shut my book. I've already told Luke a dozen times that he is not to lay a finger on anybody in the home. Not without my permission, at least. That's the rules. Everyone knows I'm the one calling the shots around here, and nothing happens without my say-so.
And Luke sure as hell doesn’t have my permission to be beatin' on the newbies.
“Show me,” I instruct and stand up, following Gary out to the back.
Growing up in New York ain't like growing up in other places. This city will eat you alive if you let it. It takes a different kinda person to grow up here. Requires a certain mental toughness other places don't.
That goes double when you grow up in Hell's Kitchen, which has some of the toughest streets in all of New York – maybe even the entire country. And when you're an orphan, growing up in a home in Hell's Kitchen, you have it the toughest of all. It forces you to grow up fast and grow up hard. When you're an orphan in the Kitchen, you're looked down on and treated like shit by every single asshole out there.
Of course, they tend to lose that attitude real quick after you beat the crap outta them. They tend to lose it pretty damn fast, in fact.
It was that reputation – that of the kid you don't fuck with – that I've been building, and nurturing during my time at St. Agatha's Home for Children. Somebody you don't want to mess with.
I make damn sure that everyone knows I am not somebody you screw with. Not if you want to stay upright and among the living.
Being tough, being an asshole, and taking no shit, is pretty much the only way to survive in a place like St. Agatha's.
The fact of the matter is that most of us are in this damn home until we turn eighteen – which means, I still have four years of this shit to suffer through. Four years of trying to keep myself on top and trying to survive.
The nuns tell me to be positive, and to keep my head up.
They like to say that life can change in the blink of an eye, and all it takes is for one special person to come in here and connect with me. Yeah, I try to be respectful of them, but I want to tell them they can peddle those feel good fantasies somewhere else, because I ain't buyin' them.
I ain't foolin' myself. I'm not an idiot. I'm a realist. And I really doubt anyone’s gonna come waltzing in here, decide their life is incomplete without me, and whisk me away to some grand estate somewhere out in the country with fresh air, sunshine, and animals galore. Life isn’t some fairy tale.
All these idiots who still have those stupid dreams of fairy tale endings and a loving family floating around in their heads, make me sick. It ain't gonna happen. No matter how many times you click your damn heels together, or how many stars you wish upon, you're probably going to be stuck in the home until you're no longer a responsibility of the state. After that, well, you're on your own.
So, whenever some new kid rolls in here all full of hope and optimism, and when they talk – usually spouting rainbows, sunshine, and glittery crap, about how it's only a matter of time before they find a forever home – I want to slap them with a cold dose of fuckin' reality. A few times actually, since some people are slower to learn than others. They need to learn about the real world, and how it doesn't give a damn about any of us.
Suffice it to say, I don't have a lot of friends in here. The flip side of having this kind of reputation is that you spend a lotta time alone. People are afraid to get near you, so you better like your own company. Fortunately, I do. I feel most comfortable on my own, alone with my thoughts and books, to be honest. I don't want or need anybody. Never have, never will. I'm independent as hell, and plan to stay that way.
Aa long as I have my books, I don’t need anybody. In fact, in a strange way, my books were what started me on the road to building the reputation I have. The one I've been nurturing for a while now.
I was barely ten when I was dropped off at St. Aggie's with nothing but a change of clothes and a bag filled with books. My parents – if you want to call them that – got tired of having a kid around. Apparently, I put a real damper on their life and after a few years, they wanted to party, not raise a family.
That was fine though. I'm better off without them. Honestly, who knows what kind of sad shit I'd be if they'd kept me immersed in their drug and booze-riddled lifestyle.
The only time it was tough was around Christmas. I hated seeing TV programs or movies that showed families on Christmas, laughing and enjoying each other, opening gifts, or doing anything families do, really. Hated it with a white-hot, burning passion.
Sitting alone in a place as depressing as St. Aggie's, with no holiday cheer to speak of, knowing you're not going to wake up to see a hundred presents under the tree or the smiling faces of family, hear their laughter and joy, or have a hot meal, like ham with all of the side dishes, at a table filled with love and happiness – yeah, it sucked. It left me bitter and resentful. Made me really come to despise all the things I never had, but secretly wanted.
It was the main reason I hated the holidays. I never felt connected to Christmas in any way, shape, or form. For me, it had always been just another day. Nothing special, nothing remarkable or noteworthy, and certainly nothing to get excited about. It just was.
Oh, the nuns at St. Aggie's always tried to instill a little holiday cheer around this place. They put up a tree, tinsel and decorations everywhere, holiday music played all month long, and the Christmas cheer was rammed down our throats. We always had a present under the tree with our name on it to open on Christmas morning – though it was usually socks or underwear. They did what they could, but it always felt forced and manufactured. Fake.
Anyway, it didn't really matter. I mostly kept to myself in those early days. Usually just crawled into a corner somewhere and buried myself in a book. It was on one of those days – I remember it was raining and cold outside, another dreadful Christmas was fast approaching, and I was already in a sour mood because if it.
I remember that day, being huddled in a corner in the home's common room, reading a book – not an unusual occurrence. I don't even know why, but I remember Derrick Newman and a couple of his buddies decided to choose that day to mess with me. Maybe they were bored because we were trapped inside the home, and had nothing better to do, or they'd grown bored picking on the other kids. They usually left me alone to do my own thing, but something changed that day in their tiny, pea-sized brains.
That day, Derrick had walked up and snatched the book out of my hand. When I went to grab it back, he laughed and tossed it to his buddy, who then tossed it to the other guy. Around and around the fucking game went on until I'd had enough. I pushed Derrick and told him to give me back my book.
He laughed and drove his fist into my stomach. I can still remember how bad it hurt. I remember doubling over. Remember the pain that seemed to radiate from my every nerve ending. Remember the sound of their voices when they laughed and taunted me, called me a baby for crying. I can see it all as clearly as if it had happened yesterday.
After the initial shock and pain wore off, I remember feeling this dark rage well up inside of me. All at once, I felt strong. Powerful. Invincible. And then, I just snapped.
Filled with that same rage, I launched myself at Derrick, fists and feet flying with a reckless abandon. I connected with his face and his body, driving him backward. I remember howling like a banshee as I rained down kicks and punches on him.
His buddies stood by in shocked, wide-eyed silence as I continued kicking and punching him until he was sputtering and gasping, and I saw blood on his face – which made me punch even harder. I was like a bull seein' a fuckin' red cape or something.
Eventually, the nuns came running, and pulled me off him. He cried and sputtered, told them I attacked him for no reason. Told them he had no idea why I'd flipped, and that there was something wrong with me. After the fight, I was put in solitary for a couple of days – and then given all kinds of spiritual counseling for my anger. They completely ignored the fact that Derrick was a stupid bully who deserved everything he got – and probably a hell of a lot more than what I'd dished out.
After that, Derrick and his buddies never bothered me again. People looked at me with a mixture of fear and respect, which was weird, since most of them didn't notice me at all before that. And although I've had to fight a few people after that – mostly newbies who walked in– nobody threatened or bullied me again. My reputation was set. Solid.
After that, people whispered, or just fell silent whenever I walked into a room. Some people gave me a wide berth while others begged for my protection. Derrick had fallen from grace, and I'd stepped into the void and had elevated myself in the eyes of the other kids. I was the big man in the home, now.
And honestly, I started to like the little position of power I'd carved out for myself. People looked up to me. Respected me. And most importantly it got people to leave me the fuck alone for the most part.
Back in the here and now, Gary and I step out of the house and into the cold afternoon. Winter – and unfortunately, another Christmas – is on its way, making the days short and packed with as little warmth as the nuns who run the home. Most of them have the temperament of a honey badger with a toothache.
I'm in a light sweatshirt and jeans – my usual attire, as we walk across the yard, my anger already rising inside of me. The anger ignites a fire inside of me, warming me from the inside out, and I feel beads of sweat beading on my forehead, despite the frigid temperature of the afternoon.
Summer in Hell's Kitchen sucks. It always seems like you can’t find any relief from the unrelenting heat and humidity. Winter is even worse, given that no matter how many layers you put on, you can never get warm.
Rounding a corner, I see a crowd of the kids gathered in a circle and in the center, Luke is looming over one of the new kids. I let out a breath and shake my head.
“Luke,” I call as we approach. “What the fuck are you doin', man?”
He looks up at me, his fists balled at his sides. I see fear flash across his face as he takes a step back. He knows he fucked up, and that not staying in his own lane could result in him getting his ass kicked. Again. I've never credited Luke with an overabundance of brains, but he's smart enough to know when he screwed up – most of the time.
“I was just showin' the new kid how shit works around here, Carter,” he says. “I was –”
I stop, standing less than a foot from Luke, my eyes boring into his. I hold his gaze for a long moment, letting the tension build between us – ratcheting up his fear a few notches. All around us, the silence of the other kids, all of them watching us intently – most all of them wanting to see Luke get his ass beat – only adds to the air, already thick with tension.
“Did you have my permission to do this?” I finally ask, my voice low and colder than the wind whipping around us.
Despite the fact that he's a few inches taller and about thirty pounds heavier than me, Luke looks away, unable to meet my eyes. My reputation makes me bigger and stronger than anybody else here, and if push comes to shove, people will always defer to me.
“No,” he mutters.
“Then what made you think it was okay to lay your hands on this kid?”
He shakes his head. “I was just tryin' to help –”
I don't let him finish his statement before reaching back and drilling him square in the face. The crack of my fist meeting his nose sounds like a gunshot and draws a collective gasp from the kids gathered around.
Luke goes sprawling backward, landing flat on his ass with a grunt. He clutches his nose, and I give him a grin.
“The rest of you,” I turn and address the small crowd. “Get out of here. Show's over.”
The kids who'd gathered to watch the fight quickly filter away, low mumbles all around. Some – Luke's friends mostly – shoot me dark looks, but I know none of them have the balls to challenge me.
I turn and look at the kid on the ground. He's about my age, maybe a year older. His cheeks are flushed, his nose bloodied, and there is a stricken look on his face. A few feet away is a little girl – maybe nine or ten years old – and the resemblance between the two is unmistakable. Her eyes are wide, jade green, and shimmering with tears. The girl's cheeks are flushed, and she looks absolutely terrified.
She’s got to learn that the world is a cold, cruel, violent place at some point, right? If she – and her brother – are going to make it in here, they need to know what it takes. And that means taking a stand and never letting yourself be pushed around. If somebody takes a swing at you, you better hit back twice as hard. It ain't perfect, but it's the way this world works.
“That your sister?” I ask.
The kid on the ground nods. “Yeah, that's Darby,” he says, his voice sullen.
“It's okay, Darby. No need to freak out,” I say. “Everything's cool now.”
She says nothing. Doesn't even move an inch. She just stares at me with those wide green eyes. But then, her lips tremble, and tears start to roll down her cheeks. She chokes back a sob, letting out a high-pitched squeaking sound.
I reach my hand out and pull the boy to his feet. He dusts himself off, and then looks at me, a sheepish expression upon his face.
“I'm Carter,” I say.
He wipes the thin blood away from his nose with his sleeve, staring wide-eyed at the crimson streak on the fabric. The way he looks at his blood, with something akin to fear in his face, tells me he’s never been in a fight before. Which is probably why he was easy pickings for an idiot like Luke – bullies will always target those weaker than they are.
“Mason,” he says.
“New here, right?”
Mason nods. “Yeah,” he says, his voice colored with sadness. “We're not going to be here too long. We've got family who's going to come get us out of here and take us home with them. They live upstate. In the country. It's going to be great.”
I let out a long breath – he's one of those types. I open my mouth to disabuse him of his little fantasy but see that the little girl is still staring at up me with a mixture of curiosity, and another emotion that I can’t really define.
All I know is that her eyes are boring into me. Eyes that have seen far too much for someone her age. As I stand there, being probed by those sparkling green eyes, I'm half-convinced she can read my fuckin' mind.
As she stares at me, I feel a pang of guilt shoot through me. It hits me that this little girl – and her brother, for that matter – obviously need to cling to that lie. Need to believe that somebody's going to come riding in on a white horse and rescue them from this place. They need to hold on to that hope for all they're worth.
Destroying it for them, would not only make me a complete asshole, but would probably do more harm at this point. They need a little time to acclimate to the environment here. They're both new to the system, and don't understand the way this world works. Not yet, anyway. Once they've been in here a year or two, they'll start to get it.
So, I close my mouth again, and say anything. If he wants them both to live in that little fantasy world, and not entertain the reality of their situation, so be it. Doesn’t matter to me. Who am I to burst their bubble?
“We've got an aunt and an uncle who live Upstate,” Mason goes on. “They're going to come get us.”
“Sure. That's good, man.”
“Anyway,” Mason says. “Thanks for helping me out with that guy.”
I nod. “Just keep your head down,” I reply. “You won't have trouble with Luke anymore. But, if anybody else bothers you, just let me know, and I'll deal with it. You're under my protection now. The both of you. Anybody messes with you, I'll handle it.”
Mason chuckles. “You sound like you're in the mob or something.”
I shrug. “I just know how things work around here,” I say. “People around here listen to me.”
“I'll remember that,” he says. “Thanks again.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say.
I watch as he puts his hand on his sister's back and leads her away. As they go though, she turns and looks back at me over her shoulder. Those green eyes, vivid and intense, burn into me, and I wonder what it is she's seeing. What she's thinking. Something tells me she's a lot wiser to the way the world works than her brother is, and sees shit for how it really is.
* * *
Over the next couple of weeks though, I hung out with Mason a bit. He's a nice enough guy, but I could tell he felt uncomfortable about being around me. I could tell he didn't much care for feeling like he was being protected, or knowing that he needed the protection.
From some of the things he said, and the snotty little attitude he'd sometimes get, I could see he wanted to be known as someone who could take care of himself. He tried to keep a buffer between us – but, never strayed too far away, either.
The whole time we hung out together, his sister never left his side. Nor did she ever say a word to me. Not a single damn word. She just sat there, silently staring at me with those wide, green eyes of hers. To be honest, it was unnerving as hell. I didn't like feeling like she could see through me.
It turned out that Mason had been right all along. About a month after the two of them landed in St. Aggie's – after another shitty Christmas that netted me a new pack of boxers – their aunt and uncle from Upstate showed up to claim them – just like Mason said they would.
I was surprised, of course. In the whole time I'd been at St. Aggie's, it was rare that any of the kids who were dropped off had family who cared about them enough to come claim them. It never happened all that often.
Honestly, I was largely indifferent about their departure from St. Aggie’s. It's not like we were best friends or anything. He was just someone I hung out with.
In fact, it was a little bit of a relief. I didn't have to keep watching his back anymore.
The only thing I remember clearly about them leaving though, was that silent little girl staring at me with her big green eyes as I stood on the porch, watching them go.
It's an image I'd never forget. Though, I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why.