“It’s your turn to go in, Rayne,” Mrs. Jenson says softly.
I struggle to my feet and stagger into Paris’s room. He hasn’t changed from the last time I saw him. The officer guarding him must be getting used to the sight of me because he doesn’t bother to poke his head in, just angles his chair so he can see me if he needs to. I sit in the chair by Paris’s bed and don’t say anything; I just watch him as his chest rises and falls. Periodically, I touch him gently to let him know I’m there. There are so many things I want to say, but can’t. It all sounds so trite compared to what is happening to him. Thanks for being my best friend, Paris. Thanks for always being there. Thanks for being there for me when my father died and for countless other times since when I would have been in deep trouble without you. Thanks for helping me through the difficult last two months, and I’d do the same for you. Thanks for the unconditional love. How can I say any of that without sounding stupid?
I shift in my seat, trying not to notice how pale and terribly still Paris is. I wish he would wake up so we could get him out of this room; I hate the thought of him being alone. Paris is such a people person. He detests being by himself except for the rare occasion when he needs to recharge his batteries. It happens about once a month. If I’m home, he’ll put a ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on his door that he stole from a hotel, then lock himself in. He’s always more centered and at peace when he emerges hours later, so I let him be. He never talks about what he does when he’s in self-imposed solitude, but I assume it is some kind of mediation. Even though Paris is not religious like his mother, he is highly spiritual. I draw strength from him, and I am at a loss how to be the strong one now that he needs me.
“Paris, you have to wake up,” I whisper, my eyes filling with tears. “You can’t leave me. I don’t want to wake up to a world without you in it.” I stop, not wanting to lay a guilt trip on Paris, though I want him to know how much he’ll be missed if he dies. “Remember how devastated I was when my father died? I can’t go through that again.” I am clutching the edge of the bed as well as his hand. “I’m going to find out who did this to you, Paris, but it would sure help if you gave me a sign.” I wait, but nothing. Not even an involuntary twitch. I close my eyes as the tears slip down my face. I know it doesn’t help to cry, but I can’t stop. I must be more tired than I think because I fall asleep.
Paris is smiling at me, and he’s whole. Nothing is bruised, battered or broken. He’s my beautiful boy as he always was. Except for the gaping hole where his heart should be. At first I don’t notice it because I’m drinking in the sight of him radiant. When my eyes are drawn to the hole, I can’t stop staring. We are outside, and there is greenery showing through that hole. Suddenly, a face pops up behind the hole. I can’t tell if it’s a man or woman, but s/he is grinning at me, though s/he’s missing an eye due to a bullet wound. S/he waves at me before slowly crumpling to the ground. To my horror, a gun drops from my hand to the ground as the hole in Paris’s heart shrinks until it’s completely gone. Once that’s complete, he turns and walks away. There is nothing behind him.
“Ma’am! Ma’am! Wake up, ma’am.” The shaking again. Will it never stop? I groan and try to free myself, but there is a vise on my shoulder which won’t let go of me. I open one eye. The cop is staring at me, his eyes concerned. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
“What—what—where am I?” I can’t ask the questions I want to ask to a total stranger, so I shift gears but that only befuddles me more. Fortunately, I have let go of Paris sometime during my nap.
“You were screaming, ma’am,” the cop says soberly, easing up on his death grip. “Must be having a nightmare or something. Can’t be having you disturb the patient.”
“Not like he can hear me, anyway,” I mutter before I can stop myself. I feel horrid once I say it because chances are, Paris can hear me. “Sorry, Paris,” I say as I stand up. I stumble out of the room, the cop still keeping a wary eye on me. I somehow manage to find the others who are all dropping off. “What day is it?” I ask my mother urgently in Taiwanese. I don’t want the others to know what happened. She immediately wakes up and takes a good look at me before checking her watch.
“Monday morning, five-thirty, March,” she replies in Taiwanese. “What happened? You have a nightmare?” I nod, too ashamed to say anything. She is looking at me, so I tell her about the earlier one, though I don’t want to. “I’m not surprised,” she says with a sigh. “This thing with Paris has really shaken you up. Bound to bring back horrible memories.”
“What are you two talking about?” Lyle mumbles, still half-asleep.
“Nothing,” I say, switching back to English. “Just wondering when she’s going to go home and get some real sleep.” The lie comes out easily, though I’m not sure why I feel it necessary to lie to Lyle. “Man, I’m wiped out.”
“You and me both, sister,” Lyle mutters before nodding off again.
“I’m really worried about you,” my mother says, still in Taiwanese. There is a frown on her face that has nothing to do with Paris’s predicament. “You’ve been through a lot lately. I’m not sure how much more you can stand.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” I say softly, also in Taiwanese. “I’m tough. I can deal with this.”
“What if Paris doesn’t survive?” My mother asks bluntly. “How will you deal with it then?” The words hover between us, sounding more ominous in my mother’s native language than in mine. “I think you should try therapy again.”
“That’s how I got into the mess last time around!” I say with some heat. The last murder I was involved in occurred because I joined a support group for trauma survivors.
“It’s starting again, isn’t it? How are you going to get through it without Paris there?” My mom is not unsympathetic, merely concerned.
“I think I should take Mrs. Jenson back to her hotel and perhaps try to sleep,” I sigh. “No, check that. It’s best if I don’t go back to the apartment. I’ll never wake up on time.” I shake Mrs. Jenson awake and ask if she’d like to go back to her hotel.
“I can’t,” she says desperately, clutching her purse to her chest. “I have to be here when he wakes up.” Tears fill her eyes, and she makes no move to brush them away. It hits me that she really loves her son and is suffering greatly. Sorrow fills me, but so does rage. The same thoughts fill my head. Where was she when her son was conscious? She spent most of life berating him and his ‘life choices’, and I bet when he opens his eyes again, she’ll pick up where she left off. I shake my head at the folly. She has a beautiful son who is the joy of so many around him, and she can’t enjoy him for who he is.
Time drags. Now that I am past the initial shock, I find my emotions hovering between disbelief and anger. Anger at the person who hit Paris, of course, but anger for others as well. Mrs. Jenson for stated reasons; Lyle for provoking Paris; Paris for being hit; me for taking Paris’s friendship for granted; my mother for suggesting I need a head-shrinker. I’m mad at my colleagues for avoiding me like the plague at work because of the murders I’ve been involved with; my sister for pestering me about her wedding which I consider pretty irrelevant; Vashti for lying to me even though I’ve forgiven her for that; the rest of the girls for not calling often enough. Most of all, at whatever higher being exists for allowing this tragedy to happen. I stare at wall opposite me trying to subdue the rage.
I must have dozed off, because next thing I know, it’s seven-thirty in the morning. The others are still snoozing, so I decide to let them be. I scribble a note and tuck it in my mom’s hand, hoping she won’t drop it. I write another and place it in Lyle’s shirt pocket, right next to Paris’s cigarettes. Feeling guilty, I filch a cigarette, grab the keys from my mother’s purse, then take off. Traffic is frustrating me as I usually walk to work. I find myself clutching the steering wheel of the Honda Accord and force myself to relax. I flick on the radio, and they are reporting on Paris’s hit-and-run. The announcer has a British accent and sounds as if he’s reading off cue cards. Badly. I listen as he says the police have a lead to the would-be killer. I wonder if it’s my tape, or if they found other evidence.
“An anonymous witness saw a man running towards Mr. Frantz as he lay on the ground. The witness couldn’t tell if the man was trying to help or hurt Mr. Frantz.” That would be Lyle is my guess. “There are rumors that Mr. Frantz was involved with gambling and perhaps couldn’t pay back his debts. According to an anonymous source, Mr. Frantz preferred to be paid in cash for his job as a physical trainer and talked about being a little short of money. Maybe Mr. Frantz was embezzling from the gym.” I flick the radio off in disgust. An anonymous source? Probably that stupid client who was acting suspiciously, trying to deflect attention from him or herself. Idly, I speculate what the client might have done because the thought of Paris being involved in something criminal is more than insane. Stealing? How would one steal from a gym? Steroids? A possibility. Trashing equipment? Stalking someone who is working out? I will have to stop by the gym after work. I wish I had brought my gym clothes with me so I won’t be so conspicuous, but I can always return home before swinging by ‘N Sound Shape.
Traffic is a mess, and I can’t find a parking space. I’m late. When I enter the agency, conversation peters out. My supervisor, Sandra, glances at me before quickly looking away. She is a thin, gangly woman with buck teeth and over-processed hair. She makes an elaborate show of pulling out a compact to powder her nose. The director of the agency, an amiable-looking rotund black man who is a lazy son-of-a-bitch, but who has gotten more careful at appearing as if he’s working ever since the Board of Trustees put him on probation, looks at me before closing the door to his office. Alicia, the lead counselor, purses her lips and looks at me out of her piggy eyes. She smoothes her gray hair back into its bun before waddling away from me, disdain bristling from her rigid back. I have always been the oddball of the group, but now I’m a pariah as well. Hopefully, that extends to Quinn, the program coordinator who has convinced herself that she’s in love with me even though she’s living with a man and only recently slept with her first woman.
“Good morning,” I say loudly, fed up with the silent treatment. “I hope you’ve all had a good weekend.” Even though Sandra is the only one in sight, I am certain that there are other coworkers lurking in the shadows gawking at me. In some ways, it’s understandable. How often do you meet someone who’s been involved in three murders—well, two murders and one attempted—in less than half a year? If I weren’t me, I’d be gawking at me, too. That doesn’t make it easier to swallow. Sandra doesn’t answer as she studies herself in her compact. I sigh inwardly and grab a cup of coffee. It’s going to be one of those days, and I need the caffeine.
Sitting at my desk, I power up the computer. As I’m waiting for it to warm up, I sip at my coffee, trying to draw warmth from it. My coworkers are streaming by the desk, pointedly ignoring me. I’m fed up. My best friend is in the hospital, unconscious, and I’m getting the silent treatment. I wish I could walk away from the job, but that’s not really an option. I stop and think. My rent is high, but not exorbitant for San Francisco—eight hundred a month, god bless rent-control—and I have one more rent-free month—god bless almost being murdered. Plus, I live pretty frugally and have saved up enough for six months’ rent. In addition, I have the stocks and bonds my father left me though the ten thou is long gone. My mother is tending my stocks and bonds, which means they’ve probably tripled in value. I might be able to quit my job. I’ll have to talk to my mother about it.
“Dude, is it true?” Jamal, a skinny black kid with bright eyes, stops in front of my desk and asks with an engaging grin. Well, it would be engaging if one of his top front teeth wasn’t graying from decay and neglect. Ever since I brought in some Godiva chocolates and he finagled himself a piece, we’ve been fast friends. “Did your best friend really get smoked?”
“No, Jamal, it isn’t true. He is in the hospital, though.” Far from being offended, I’m relieved at his frankness. It’s better than the silence with which my coworkers are treating me.
“I heard he got whacked and he be unconscious and they don’t know who did it. That’s messed up, man.” He shakes his head, losing the grin. If there’s one thing these kids are experts at—it’s loss. “My homeboy got smoked right in front of my eyes. We wuz sittin’ right outside my crib when this OG come up and smoked him. It was cold.” Jamal’s tone drops until it’s barely above a whisper. He’s fifteen years old and has probably seen more deaths in his lifetime than a seventy-year old.
“I’m sorry, Jamal,” I say softly, not wanting to intrude on his pain. “It sucks, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, it sure do.” Jamal shakes his head and wanders away. He has a red kerchief just barely peeking out of his back jeans’ pocket which is against the rules—we don’t allow the kids to show their colors—but I am not going to reprimand him. He’s the only person at work so far who’s shown me any kind of sympathy, and I am grateful.