BLOOD swirled in feathery tendrils as the drain devoured the water. The grimy sink somehow made the blood appear sinister. Of course, seeing how I came to be covered in blood could account for the baleful countenance.
For the first time, I caught sight of the reflection in the mirror above the sink. My skin was so drained of color that the freckles beamed like stars in the sky. Leaning closer, I realized blood was streaked across my right eye. Had I wiped my arm over my eyes and not realized it, or had some of the blood squirted in my face? I hoped it was mine. What if it got in my eye? Who knew what diseases that kid had? Another torrent of anger washed over me as his face flitted through my mind. Filling my hands with water, I plunged my face into them, washing away as much of the blood as I could with my eyes squeezed shut.
After another inspection in the mirror, I was satisfied there was little likelihood of blood actually getting in my eye. Glancing down, I took in the rest of me. The bottom half of my shirt and the lap of my jeans had soaked up most of the blood. As much as I wanted to tear them off my body and throw them away, burn them, I’d have to wait. Bloody clothes were better than no clothes at all.
Looking back to the slices across my right forearm, a tingle of dread clawed at my gut. There was no way some of the boy’s blood didn’t mingle with mine. It had to have. Gingerly, I placed a thumb and forefinger on either side of the wounds and spread them apart. They weren’t overly deep. Deep enough for stitches, and probably deep enough for scars, but shallow enough to avoid any significant injury.
Returning to the mirror, I gazed at the man staring back at me. His eyes, bluer than normal, peered from his nearly translucent skin. His lips were chapped and splitting. He looked somewhat crazed, ready to self-destruct. Worse than the wounds, worse than the blood, even worse than holding the boy down, was the dread beginning to take control.
Something was different this time. Something was coming, something that was going to strip away the life I had carved out for myself. Something I couldn’t fight.
Roughly seven years earlier
MOST people would say I should start this story from the beginning. You know, the very beginning. Bright white tile flooring that has been bleached spotless. The doctor in his thin green cotton scrubs, anxiously awaiting the moment he could smack my ass. The exit from my mother’s vagina, the last vagina I would ever see up close and personal. The moment my tiny fist clutched onto my mother’s little finger and she burst into tears, the bonding process beginning.
I guess I could begin there. There’s a lot to tell. However, I’m sure I will take you back to glimpses into my childhood at some point. Even if I don’t, I imagine you’ll be able to paint a fairly accurate portrayal of what my growing-up process was like once you get to know my mother. Besides, it wouldn’t be that interesting a place to start. After all, my mother didn’t pick me up or hold me for weeks; it was my aunt who carried me out of the hospital. There was no finger bonding. I pretty much just lay there.
Thankfully, I don’t remember that particular period of my life. I am sure there were some great and satisfying shits in my diaper that broke up the boredom, but really, who needs the details on those? It’s the one thing that bonds us all. Well, except dying, but we can’t really share that with anyone else, can we? It’s a one-person ride. Wow, went from being born to dying. I don’t think I will start with death either. There will be plenty on that subject later.
I suppose I could start with an amusing episode when my cousin Donnie saved me and my bantam chicken, Murdel, from getting beaten up by a group of fourth graders who thought it was fun to pick on a sissy who was smaller than them. Well, maybe not smaller, as I was quite the little porker, but shorter at any rate. It really was quite an exciting event. Donnie, being Donnie, saved the day and neither red hair nor brown feather was disturbed. Although, looking back, it might have been fun if he had waited a few minutes to see what would have happened. A pissed-off chicken can hold its own in a fight.
I don’t really think I want to start my story there either, though. It is enough to know that the fat little kid was able to waddle off into the sunset with his best friend skittering along at his side, occasionally searching for worms or roly-polies.
Maybe I’m simply trying to postpone really starting. I know where I want to begin, and it is not a bad place to start, nor is it a painful memory, not this particular aspect of it, at any rate. I just know that once the story commences, I will have to see it through. I won’t be able to stop; I won’t be able to skip much. True, I will get to relive the good times, and there were so many, but I will also have to ponder memories that hurt, memories I have yet to be able to understand. I am probably making my life sound much more Shakespearian tragedy than it really is. However, it is my life, not Shakespeare’s. He got to tell his stories. I want a turn to tell mine. So, I will begin. Not with a huge, dramatic happening. Not with a moment of heroism or terror. Simply with a moment. A moment I originally saw as me being brave and self-sacrificing, an attempt to do right. I now see it for what it was—a moment where I was still afraid to face who I really was, and too timid to expect others to accept me. Regardless, it was a moment that would assist in me having to return home. Return to the Midwest. Return to my roots. Return to my mother. Just a moment in my life.
IT was three days after I’d graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in youth ministry. Most people don’t believe youth pastors at churches actually have degrees, but they do, many of them anyway.
My hands were shaking, and sweat was pouring down my sides and back. My first interview, and I was fairly certain I was going to pass out. There was a ring of sweat circling my collar as my blue paisley tie seemed intent on keeping all the oxygen in the room for itself. My deep purple shirt betrayed me by pronouncing the growing pools of dampness under my arms. I berated myself for not wearing a suit so I could have kept the jacket on. Of course, I would have needed to own a suit for that to have been a possibility.
After waiting in the office for over ten minutes, my nerves began to get the best of me; running away was sounding more and more like a viable option. The pretty African-American receptionist had assured me it would only be a matter of seconds before my potential boss would arrive.
My thoughts amused me. I actually thought, she’s a very pretty African-American. I shook my head. College had really changed me. I had become overly politically correct; even my mind had bought into the lifestyle. I thought with distaste what other choice descriptors some people from back home would have used to depict her.
Glancing at the table in front of me, I reached for a magazine to help the time pass and get my nerves to a less panicked place. My only options were various issues of Sports Illustrated and Field & Stream. I placed them back on the coffee table and simply sat with my ankles crossed, my hands folded in my lap, and the pools of sweat under my arms attempting to transform into oceans.
After another ten minutes, a noise outside the door startled me. Flinching in my seat, my right leg shot out and kicked the coffee table. While the magazines stayed in the perfect fan formation I’d arranged them in, the tiny glass vase tipped over and dumped its contents of nondescript assorted candy onto the floor. Immediately, I dropped to my knees and began to scoop up as many as I could.
The door opened behind me, and I turned around slowly, my eyes on the floor. I took in the exhausted-looking pair of loafers in front of me. They were a boring shade of brown, the toes overly worn-out in comparison to the rest of the shoe. What struck me, however, was not the sad state of the shoes, but the enormousness of them. They had to be a size fifteen or sixteen. I unbugged my eyes and forced them to travel upward, which wasn’t a short journey. By the time they reached the horizontal position, I was still below the man’s torso. I continued upward, taking in his expansive chest and shoulders and his thickly corded neck. When my eyes finally met his, my head was tilted as far as it could go. He had a lazy eye that floated off to the right, but his left gazed at me for a moment. He appeared to be in his early fifties. His dark face broke into a huge, gleaming white smile, and he offered a pancake-sized hand for me to shake.
“You must be Brooklyn Morrison. I’m sorry for being so late. I’d like to say it’s an uncommon thing, but around here, nothing’s ever on time. Thanks for being patient and waiting.” His voice was as low as a person would expect from a giant. However, it was soft and quiet. It put me at ease as much as his size put me on edge.
I cleared my throat in an effort to get my voice to work. “Nice to meet you, sir. Please call me Brooke. Sorry about the mess.” I gestured with my free hand to the candy all over the floor. He still had a hold of my other hand. It felt encased by a bear.
He only offered me a friendly smile and took a seat across the room from his desk, motioning for me to do the same. I sat a few chairs away. Far enough that I wouldn’t have to spend the entire interview with my neck craned up.
My hands and legs returned to their folded position. Suddenly, my sweating left me cold, and I began to shiver slightly. I hoped it wouldn’t be enough for him to notice. He didn’t glance at me after I sat—he simply took my résumé I’d placed on the coffee table beside the magazines. By the way he pored through the two pages, you would have thought it was the final chapter in a murder mystery. After a while, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and rested his forehead on his enormous thumb and index finger.
I glanced around the office, not sure what I was searching for. Again, I saw the candy spread all over the floor and returned my gaze to the huge black man in front of me. I noticed his lips moving slightly. Was he praying? Surely not.
He opened his eyes opened suddenly and caught me staring. I quickly shut my mouth, which apparently had decided it would be an opportune time to hang open. He lowered his hand and brought it down into his lap, mimicking my own position.
“Brooklyn… Brooke. I’m sorry I have to be quick about this, but things around here never seem to slow down, and I’ve not even started figuring out next month’s schedule, and that always seems to take me hours.” His voice was slow and easy, bringing to mind my grandfather’s cadence as he sat on the edge of the pond, fishing. “They keep trying to get me to do it on the computer. They assure me it would cut the time in half. I guess you just can’t teach this old dog new tricks.” He paused. He took in a deep breath and simply looked at me.
I had no idea what the correct response to any of this was. Under his intense gaze, however, the chills left and the sweating returned. My eyes darted from his and focused again on the nearly worn-out toes of his shoes.
He continued to look at me. It was all I could do not to stand up and leave the room. If my legs would’ve obliged, I’m sure I would have. He didn’t have a murderer vibe, but the intensity of his stare began to make my skin crawl.
Apparently, he’d followed my gaze, because he spoke abruptly, causing me to jump once again. “If you choose to work here, you’ll find all the toes of your shoes and the knees of your jeans wear out within a couple months. Just one of the consequences of the job.”
Silence returned. If he thought this interview was a quick one, I was glad I hadn’t come on a day when he didn’t feel the pressure of other tasks weighing on him.
Just when I thought he’d fallen into a trance, he spoke again, this time with intent. “Brooke, I must say, I am not really sure what to do here. You seem like a very nice and likeable young man….” He cocked his head at me. “How old are you, son?”
He nodded. “Of course, I don’t expect a lot of experience, not with the pay we can offer. However, I am not sure if this is the kind of job you want.” He took a moment and closed his eyes once again, then plunged ahead. “I’m sure some of these questions may seem strange to you, but they are necessary for this position. I see you have only had work experience in a couple of church youth groups, and you graduated from Colorado Christian University recently.” He stopped again and looked at me.
I waited for some type of question. He continued to look at me. I cleared my throat again. “Well, sir, I wouldn’t really call any of what I have done work necessarily. It was all either volunteer or different church internships I needed to complete my degree. As you can see on the résumé, I also spent two years working with a church group in South America. While it was organized by the church, very little time was spent in church. Most of it was helping build schools and homes and such.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Lester Book. How very rude of me. You may call me Lester.”
“Uh, okay. Thank you, sir.” I wasn’t convinced he was really even listening to me. He was still looking at me intently, but it was a struggle to follow his train of thought.
“Lester. Please. No need to be formal.”
“Okay, no more formal.” I attempted a friendly smile. It probably came off as a constipated grimace.
Lester placed his hands on the arms of his chair and leaned forward slightly. “So, why are you looking for a job here? Why aren’t you at a church?”
“Oh.” I shook my head, trying to clear it. I had not been expecting that question. I guess I should have. Everything on my résumé was about church and other religious organizations. Still, I wasn’t prepared for a question so personal.
“I’m sorry if it seems that I’m prying. Please don’t feel you must answer that if you would rather not.”
“No, no. It’s okay, sir. Sorry, I mean Lester.” I wiped my hands on my thighs, letting out a breath. “Well, I guess the easiest way to explain it is that the type of kids I want to work with won’t really be at churches.”
“You don’t think these types of kids would go to church?” He sat back into his chair again.
“No, not like that. Sorry, I guess that came out wrong. I mean that if these types of kids were in church, they probably wouldn’t really be willing to talk about what was going on in their lives. They might be afraid of what people would think.”
He kept his steady gaze on me. “And what type of kids do you think we have here?”
“Kids who have had rough lives. Kids who have messed up because they didn’t know what they should do—who don’t have anyone else to love them.”
He continued to look at me, eyes narrowing in thought.
“I want to really help change people’s lives. Not just through running a youth group, but by affecting their daily lives.”
“And you don’t think you can do that in a church?”
“Of course you can, it’s just that….” I took in a breath and searched the floor, trying to find a way to answer honestly but not give too much away. “I’m just not sure if what I have to offer would be best used in a church. I thought maybe somewhere else….”
“And what do you have to offer?”
“Oh. Well, I have love to offer. I can help them learn right from wrong.” I groaned inwardly. Love? I think I preferred the silent interview tactics; at least then I didn’t sound cheesy. If only I could sink into the floor.
Lester just gazed at me, unmoving. It was obvious we were wasting our time. He’d already decided I wasn’t the person for the job, that I didn’t belong here. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. If I didn’t feel like I belonged at a church, what made me think anywhere else would be different?
Lester leaned forward again, his huge forearms resting on his knees. “Let’s get practical. I want to make sure you understand what you’re getting yourself into here. This is a residential treatment facility. It’s a small step below a detention center, except we give our residents therapy on a daily basis. There are kids here who are dangerous and will try to hurt you or themselves. There are days I have to restrain four or five of them. Of course, there are also days where there aren’t any restraints.”
I knew the kids would be tough, and I had no idea what being in a restraint would be like, but I knew this wouldn’t be a typical job when I came in. That’s why I had come in.
“Do you think you could handle having to hold a kid on the floor while they are screaming and fighting?”
It took me a second to think through this scenario. “If I believe there’s a reason behind it, one that will help them, then yes. I think so.”
“Huh.” He held my gaze in his, refusing to let me look away. “There are kids here who are gay and may even flirt with you. There are kids who have been prostitutes and have molested other children. What would you say if a boy came up to you and told you he was gay and asked if you would be interested in doing something with him?”
I flinched. Was he kidding? Did he think I was here to try to have sex with kids? What made him even consider such a possibility with me? Maybe I shouldn’t have said I was here to love the kids.
His eyebrows furrowed, taking in my startled expression, as he clarified. “Would you tell them they were going to Hell? Would you try to change them using the Bible?”
“Oh”—I realized where his questions were coming from—“because of where I went to school and my degree?”
“We’ve had several well-meaning people come in with the thought of saving all the kids and making them change their beliefs—outside their goals based on therapy, obviously. It has always been a very painful experience for the staff and the kids alike.”
I breathed out in a small amount of relief. “I understand. No, I doubt I’d feel the need to preach anything to the kids at all. I think how I’ll treat them will say more about God and love than anything I could say. And if a boy came up to me and told me he had a crush on me, I’d just tell him I’m an adult and his counselor, and a relationship like that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Very good.” He looked away for a second and then caught my eyes again. “And what if you walked in on them masturbating?”
I felt my face flush with heat. I wiped a hand over my mouth. “I guess I’d walk away and not say anything. I’d try to find someone to tell.” What the hell? Did he ask everyone these questions? Or did I have “child molester” scrawled across my forehead?
He relaxed more fully in his chair, folding his arms across his chest. He opened his mouth to speak. Just then, someone knocked on the door and cracked it open. “Lester?” It was the pretty receptionist. “You’re needed upstairs. Do you have a second?”
“Of course, Linda. Be right there.” He glanced over to me. “I am sorry, please give me a moment, and I will be right back with you.”
He shut the door behind him, and I was alone again in the office. I leaned forward and put my head in my hands. This was a mistake. I shouldn’t have come here. I shouldn’t try to work with kids. I thought it would be better if I weren’t in a church. Apparently, it was the same everywhere. My mother had been right. I wouldn’t be allowed to work with kids.
What did this man see in me? There was no way he could know anything about my life. Maybe it was in the way I walked. Maybe in the color of tie I chose. Maybe my hair wasn’t messy enough.
I should just leave. Why wait around just to be told no? I got out of my chair and took my résumé off his desk. I reached out to the door handle. A candy crunched beneath my foot. Shit. After a second’s hesitation, I put the résumé back and bent down and resumed the task of picking up the pieces of candy. A brightly wrapped red candy had somehow managed to get lodged between the back leg of the desk and the wall. “Still at it, I see.” He motioned back to the seat I had occupied before. “You didn’t need to worry about those. Thank you, though.”
I gave him a sheepish grin and returned to my chair. I should’ve left. Candy be damned.
Lester remained standing, soaring over me to an even greater degree than before. “Things are really chaotic upstairs right now, and I need to be there to help. So, I’m sorry I have to wrap up so abruptly.”
“It’s okay, sir. I appreciate your time.” I began to stand up.
“Oh, please. Call me Lester. We’re not formal around here.”
I looked at him, baffled, but decided to go with it. “Okay, thanks, Lester.”
Lester held out his mammoth hand to me once again. “So, I was thinking of waiting until after the first of the year. That’s only two weeks or so away. A new year, a new beginning. Seems to make sense. Will that work for you?”
He shook his head as I neglected to use his first name yet again, but smiled at me. “Just talk to Linda about what day you would like to start at the beginning of January. We’ll begin your training after that.”
“Uh, yeah, sure. That’ll work.” Shouldn’t I think about this first, or consider other offers? Not that I had tried for other offers. “Sure. January should be fine.” I placed my miniscule hand in his and let him shake it emphatically.
“Wonderful. I will look forward to seeing you in January, Brooklyn.” He grinned at the use of my full name. “Until then, have a great Christmas. Be careful out there tonight. I just glanced out the window, and the roads are looking bad.” With one final grasp of my hand, he turned and walked out of his office, this time leaving the door open.
After confirming a start date for the eighth of January, I got into my car, put the key in the ignition, and just sat there. What had just happened? Had I really just accepted a job? What had Lester seen in me? What could possibly make him ask such bizarre, random questions? And if he really had those concerns, what would make him hire me? I’d worried about the questions I’d have to endure during an interview for a church, but I doubt any of them would have been about masturbation.
However, I was excited that I already had a job, and I wouldn’t have to stress about going to more interviews. Having the next couple of weeks off before I’d have to begin working was an added bonus.
His questions left me feeling confused and dirty for some reason. Was I so easy to see through? I prayed silently for some clarity and peace. As always, everything remained as it was; if anything, my emotions grew more intense. I turned the key, put the car in drive, and left the parking lot, heading downtown. There was more than one way to get a clear head.
MY mind still spinning from my interview, I ambled through the masses of the five o’ clock crowd making their way along the sidewalks on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. The December breeze was biting and did little to soothe my nerves. I wrapped my copper-colored scarf tighter around my mouth and nose and buried my gloveless hands deep into the pockets of my coat. The sleet hitting my face made it easy to block out the people around and continue obsessing over the implications of my interview.
As I turned right onto Welton Street, the breeze became a gale and caused me to close my eyes tight as I continued to move forward.
I collided into something. The strap of my workout bag slid off my shoulder, and the bag landed with a splash in a pool of dirty slush.
“Fuck off, prick! You too good to look where you’re going?”
I forced my eyes open to look toward the voice. An obese man with a patchy beard, multiple layers of greasy clothes, and a cardboard sign that was unreadable through the wet streaks of color running down the front bared his teeth at me. He was clutching at his right shoulder.
“You rich assholes think yer better ’n everyone else. Yer shit stinks same as mine!”
I bent down and picked up my bag from the puddle. Mumbling a hurried apology, I brushed past the man as he continued to rant until I was halfway down the block and something or someone else caught his attention.
At last, I stood in front of the large glass double doors of the towering building that held my gym. Doing my best to brush most of the sludge off my bag, I only managed to flick it onto my pants. With a growl, I wiped my hand off on my jacket and pulled open the door. I hit the up button of the elevator, my breath escaping in frustration. It always took forever for this elevator to arrive. I contemplated walking up the six flights of stairs to the gym but decided it wasn’t worth the effort. I’d probably trip or manage to drop my bag down several flights of stairs. Might as well wait and build up a sweat on the stair-climbing machines—less height to fall from.
After three or four minutes, a ding announced the arrival of the elevator, and the doors slid open. I took a step forward, then stopped. My eyes widened as I took in the scene in front of me.
Inside the compartment, a man faced toward the rear of the elevator with his back to the door. He looked to be around six feet tall and wore a tweed jacket and matching pants. A briefcase was lying on the floor blocking the entrance. He had his arms bent in front of him and was swiveling his knees in what looked like his own version of the twist.
I watched as the man proceeded to shrug his shoulders and grind his hips. I wasn’t sure if I should walk away so I would not be caught staring, or if I should say something to make my presence known. I felt my face flush. This was humiliating. Walk away, I should definitely walk away. As I took a step back, at that moment, the man’s eyes opened and met my gaze through the mirror in the back of the elevator. We stared at each other, trapped in our own awkward universe. He paused in midgyration; an uncomfortable smile began to cross his face. I continued to stare stupidly while trying to figure out something to say.
The man dropped his arms to his sides, turned around to face the front, gave me a little wink, and bent to pick up his briefcase. As he straightened and began to walk through the doors, he gestured to one of his white earphones. “Nothing like the Beach Boys, right?” His voice was deep and overly loud due to the earphones, causing me to jump a little. Speechless, I managed to make my head create the smallest of nods.
Flashing me a brilliant smile, he slapped me on the shoulder as he stepped past. I continued to watch the man as he straightened his shoulders and walked casually through the lobby and out the front doors.
The man cut off my stare when he turned the corner and moved out of sight. I stepped into the elevator and hit the button for the sixth floor. The elevator started its silent journey; I shook my head and muttered to myself, baffled by the man’s bizarre behavior.
Still thinking about the man in the elevator, I showed my ID to the woman at the front desk, changed clothes in the locker room, and headed to the workout area. The unexpected distraction of the scene had already helped me relax somewhat, and I quickly got lost in the country music serenading through my iPod. I did a quick shoulder workout, doing my best to watch my form in the mirror while not really taking in my appearance. I was stressed enough; I didn’t need to make a list of all my imperfections.
After finishing my fifth shoulder exercise, stair-climbing didn’t sound good after all, so I hopped on the treadmill and ran. As the speed continued to increase, my brain was finally able to shut out everything around me. I didn’t have to worry about my interview with Lester and what his questions implied. It didn’t matter that in a couple of weeks my life would be changing, going in a completely different direction than I’d been planning for years. It didn’t bother me that I’d be spending Christmas alone, with the phone turned off just in case someone uncharacteristically might decide to call. It didn’t matter that I’d once again be going home to another night of frozen leftovers, endless sitcoms, and the prospect of rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban for the fifth or sixth time. There were no thoughts of who I used to be, where I came from, all my plans that never came to fruition, or of how my family and I would probably never be able to live together in peace again. I barely noticed that several of the men and women in the sparsely filled workout area would occasionally glance in my direction. All that mattered was the adrenaline rushing through my veins, the sweat running down my back, fiddles wailing in my ears, and the pounding of my feet.
I AWOKE the morning of January 8 in a cold sweat thirty minutes before the alarm began screeching. I glanced out the window; sunrise was just beginning to show promise, the snow on the ground illuminating my front yard. I lay there, trying to calm my heart. It seemed as if I could feel every molecule in my body, and each one of them was screaming in terror. I stayed in bed, the sheets down around my shins, trying to focus on breathing, trying to pray, trying to simply think. What if I just stayed in bed? What if I simply never left my house again? What if I just quit breathing and drifted away?
The alarm at the foot of my bed began to wail at the same moment the alarm in the bathroom let out its own high-pitched scream. With a groan of anguish, I leapt out of bed, punched the alarm closest to the bed, and proceeded to do the same to the one in the bathroom. I immediately made my bed and brushed my teeth. Before getting into the shower and shaving, I simply stared at myself in the mirror.
I glared into my blue eyes, criticizing what I saw within. Not the man I thought I would be. I took in my auburn hair and pale skin and the freckles that dotted my shoulders and back. Maybe they were cute when I was a kid, but they looked rather ridiculous on a grown man. I grimaced at the muscles that stretched across my chest and wound around my arms. The more I looked, the more I felt my muscles made my five-foot-seven-inch frame seem even shorter and boxier than it already was. Not for the first time, I considered the possibility of quitting working out and trying to get skinny in the hopes of appearing lankier. I knew that wasn’t a real option for me. I would never have the discipline required to be slender. It was either stout and boxy or pudgy and round, and I had barely survived my childhood in such a state—I wasn’t going back.
What did it matter what I looked like, after all? I was a counselor now, and that’s one of the perks. I didn’t have to look good or attractive. I simply had to counsel.
I wished it were so simple. If I could be left alone with a room full of kids, I would have been fine. Even if they were mean kids and wanted to hurt me. It was dealing with the rest of the staff I was dreading. Adults are a lot more terrifying than kids. What if Lester wanted to play twenty-thousand questions again? What if other people saw the same things in me Lester must have seen? What could I do if this didn’t work out? I gave a growl of disgust as I pushed away from the mirror with a curse and stepped into the shower.