Decorative suns lined the stitching of Yoseph’s rain boots. Droplets fell, one after a million others, slipping over them before sinking into the asphalt. He wiped at his boots, hoping the suns would chase the rain away.
A boom of thunder resonated across the sky, paying no mind to Yoseph’s request.
The front gate creaked against his hand, hinges accumulated with rust and desperate for maintenance. The state of Yoseph’s apartment complex was just as decrepit, but he’d prefer time to make money than time to clean.
One footstep left his joggers clinging to the skin of his calves, the second guaranteed a safe getaway – a path behind cars in their respective parking spaces. The spot in front of Yoseph’s home was vacant. Time to time, the roar of a Ford Focus engine would come to mind. But five months had become ten and there wasn’t any money to hear his engine once more.
Threatening to fall into the puddles littered before him, Yoseph shoved his earbuds into his pockets. The rain persisted, wetness seeping further into his pants. His hood stuck to his head and shiver shot down his spine, but he carried on, treading through a patch of wet grass to reach the sidewalk.
Yoseph strode with no destination in particular, street lights casting a lonesome shadow beneath him. Depression twisted like whirlpools in his mind, almost similar to the ripples that spread throughout the rainwater-filled basin collecting beneath the shed of a nearby yard. Taking notice of the front gate left ajar, Yoseph slid onto the property and stalked over to the basin, marveling at the clusters of mosquito larvae dancing through the water, unable to seek protection from the incessant rain. He leaned a few inches closer to the breeding ground and a mangled creature rose to the surface, having been pinned down from the rain’s pressure. The settling of the rain introduced the smell of dead fish. Yoseph grabbed a stick and turned the fish over, allowing it to sink with the aid of a stone. As he set the stick down, guilt was swift to overtake him. He collapsed onto the soft Earth, tears mixing with the rain.
The soft drizzle began to work against Yoseph, whose tears were too large to hide. People often looked forward to coming home, whether to see family, a significant other, or a soap opera on TV. For Yoseph, he longed to see Peter, a flighty betta fish with rainbow scales that glistened in the light. Peter would jump at the indication of feeding time – a quick hand movement at the tanks’ side where food, from pellets to shrimp, were lined up in neat rows. As Yoseph delivered his food, Peter would leap, lips meeting Yoseph’s fingers before diving back into the water.
A few days ago, Yoseph came home to find Peter neck deep within the chimney of his clay fish house, fighting to break free. He held Peter’s home upside down, clanging away with a hammer, but in the aftermath, Peter had lost a fin and a half, his body scraped clean of flesh from tail to neck. Streams of blood drifted through the water as he struggled to stay afloat. After a while, Peter’s will to swim left him and he rested at the bottom of his tank. Yoseph moved his frail body to the flat bedrocks, praying to God for his survival.
The sun rose with Peter showing no signs of breathing. Yoseph placed him on a leaf, burying him in his scrappy backyard consisting of more weeds than flowers. God had answered his prayer with a definite no.
Yoseph dragged his hands across his face, dismayed at the fact he didn’t have the proper grounds to bury Peter, who brought him happiness he couldn’t find anywhere else. As a silent cry began in his chest, a choking sob followed after, intangible from the slaps of rumbling thunder.
There was no bargaining with life. Life was puppeting him. He had nothing to offer and no one to help.
When trespassing felt like too much of a crime, Yoseph drew himself up from the dirt, wiping at the patches of mud clinging to his pants. He returned to the sidewalk and slipped off his hood, satisfied that the rain had lessened, stroking the remaining tears from his face.
People crept into view through the misty haze, drawing umbrellas close to their torsos and dodging cavernous rain puddles with calculated leaps. Pairs of eyes flitted over to Yoseph with his downcast expression and dirtied appearance, giving him a once over before returning their attention to approaching puddles.
Yoseph’s eyes trailed after the younger brother and his sister before staring at his feet.
Peter’s death had been his last straw, his mind now clouded over with his troubles, present on his face like a wine stain to white carpet. There was no longer wondering if he could help his mother or questioning whether his car would be back in his possession. His apartment, overrun with heaps of clothing, flung without care after long hours of stocking shelves at Walgreens, would never meet the same state of perfection as the apartment of the girl he often visited, a girl too disapproving of him to tell him her name. A groan of despair left Yoseph and his knees sank closer to the pavement. The rain grew softer and so did the echo of his worries.
Before Peter, there was his mother. Yoseph pictured her, sitting behind a laptop screen in the living room, sheltered by the same darkness that hid his father’s resting figure on the nearby sofa. Her face glowed from the screen’s brightness, round and free of wrinkles except for the corners of her eyes, a result of laughter with her two children, Yoseph and Bessie. A single indent ingrained her forehead, created by late nights at her nursing home, fussing over discarded elders who’d rather have their children make all the trouble.
Her thick fingers poked at the keys of her keyboard, deliberate movements with a bit of hesitancy. Yoseph, using the shadows for cover, tapped on her shoulder, to which she didn’t respond. His mother knew the presence of her children. She had spent many days with them at school for his baseball practices, front lines of eighteen+ concerts for Bessie, and school conferences. He left home two years ago and didn’t see her as often, but those days were fresh in his mind, pure and undefiled. Their memories would never fade.
“I want to go home,” she whispered, tilting the screen towards him, eyes fixed on her lap.
Yoseph knew the website by heart, but had never used it himself. On the couch, fiddling with a rubix cube, his mother was typing. After dinner, when the family had separated, her keys clicked their steady pace, one tap, a pause, two taps. Last winter, when the icy breeze was the opposite of the homeland she longed to see, warm and pulsing from the beating wings of dragonflies, her fingers were relentless, stoic taps transformed to rhythmic.
But the website’s deadline was always out of reach, pulled to an abrupt stop with requests for documentation she couldn’t provide. All the tapping had been reduced to shouting that neared a heart shattering volume, producing bloody pieces too miniscule to find. His father, with his chest out and crooked grin on display, would pour his stream of lies, words that tramped over his lips and flew through air, acting as blindfolds for her eyes. His mother’s anger would dissipate, but her stress remained, the ache to see her parents more upsetting than the argument.
A strike of lightning and the rain ensued, Yoseph’s footsteps quickening despite the heaviness of his thoughts. More than anything, he wished his mother could see her parents again. Twenty long years had passed, but in her mind’s eye, their faces were twenty years younger. If there was a way to exchange his citizenship for her green card, he would do so in a heartbeat.
But life wasn’t made to be easy.
Yoseph paused and attempted to kick at his own knees, a fool’s mission, but to no avail.
He laughed an idiot’s laugh, throat sticky with phlegm from late nights with tears instead of a classy glass of wine. Despair stabbed at his spirit, jester-like smile for show, leering into the void he lacked the power to escape. There wasn’t a single thing he could do for his mother but watch as she paid the bills and his father stuffed his pockets, slaving for himself without the thought of family, setting fire to his wife’s security while perfecting his own, now worthy of an esteemed black card. Their house was a playground for suffering, unsuitable for a family and not quite a home. Bessie, his younger sister, was at risk of ruining everything she had built for herself, thriving with her education, but succumbing to after school altercations with their father that left her more damage than she imagined. Still, Yoseph believed she was faring much better than he, who contained his fury and hoped the bottle wouldn’t explode.
Two teenagers jogged past Yoseph on the opposite side of the road, their leash less dog clambering in front of them. Their eyes shot him a glance as their feet raced forward. A couple, dressed in neon green tracksuits, followed after the two. Together, they waved at Yoseph from across the street, smiles fading into flat lines.
The 7-Eleven crept into view from behind the sleek apartment building Yoseph frequented. When he asked the girl where things were going, she pretended to sleep, eyelashes fluttering as if awake. Yoseph used to be amiable and charismatic, enough to be told many names. Those days were gone, hidden behind a blanket of frustration, loss, and self-pity. Yoseph yearned for the past to return, where things were a fraction better than his present. Or perhaps something new could be discovered, a future different from what he had experienced, a life where his sister didn’t use her accomplishments as a means of escape, longing to spiral out of control in university, free from watchful paternal eyes. A future where his mother saw her parents, laughing with them beneath the African sun, eating Kola nuts and chatting with friends she hadn’t seen in decades.
Yoseph even found himself thinking of his father, fast asleep on the sofa, a book covering his rugged, but handsome face. Happiness was a wonderful look on him. Yoseph had always believed so. His father’s favorite conversations were of old days in college. He worked part-time at a newspaper stand, attending church and singing with the choir, all components of a joyful life. Now wickedness reigned supreme, the same emotion that drove his wife’s friends away, kept his family on the same crime ridden street, occupying various apartments, since Yoseph was five, and fueled auctioned cars that lasted less than a year, chaining the family to public transport more times then they were comfortable.
The fluorescents of the 7-Eleven blazed over Yoseph’s head and his thoughts scattered, recollecting in an instant. Fast piano music played from the speakers and a scene of a swift robbery trickled into Yoseph’s mind. The striking crescendos tugged at Yoseph, planting within him the temptation to steal. He shook his head at the request and drove his hands into his pockets. He wasn’t a thief.
Killing time, Yoseph walked between the aisles, pursuing the artificial contents of a Hot Cheetos bag someone had pried into without paying, all the while imagining a future far from his present. If recklessness was his motive, he could start small, blink, and be surprised when his thirty minutes of daily dedication became a job, a wife, and a home of sturdy walls and a grand backyard. But exhaustion had eaten at his bones. Yoseph didn’t possess the strength to give his dreams thirty minutes of time. An empire wasn’t built in five minutes, the amount of time he’d commit to before he hit a wall of defeat that displayed a reminder that he was nothing, indistinguishable from a persona of emptiness.
The sound of a broom clattering to the floor drew at Yoseph’s attention. A young man, no more than the age of twenty-five, stood across from Yoseph in the aisle, eyes on red alert. His hand reached for his hip, his means of defense constructed out of air.
“Are you going to leave?” The man’s blue eyes flashed with distrust. He crept closer to the store counter.
“Huh?” Yoseph asked.
“You’ve been talking to yourself for the past hour, heck, even before you walked in here.
I saw you, as you crossed the street.” “What?”
“You heard me. You think to yourself, out loud.”
Yoseph staggered backwards, flustered by the man’s remark. His thoughts had seeped into reality, penetrating the skull he imagined would protect him. He knew his mouth was deceitful, a flaw he had forgotten. A memory of his father pinching his lips closed rose to the surface. Sirens went off in his head, blaring at the wave of alarm fast approaching. Yoseph saw the wave rising high above his head. As he stared with desperation into the fluorescent lights, the pressure crashed against him and knocked salty water from his eyes to the floor. They flowed without mercy and Yoseph turned away, wiping his cheeks in embarrassment.
“I…I didn’t know,” he mumbled, fumbling for the exit, the aisles twisted themselves into a vortex. The couple with hesitant waves, the teenagers and their dog, and the people appearing seconds after the storm. Their eyes, large and wide, were not full of warmth, but fear.
“Are you going to pay for that?”
There was no longer a bridge between his mind and reality. Everything had molded together, one slow moving vat of colors that blended and folded out of each other, proving impossible to separate.
“I can’t hear you now. You’re quiet. You’re okay.”
The world stilled and a bag of half-eaten Cheetos fell out of his hand, scattering chips across the floor. With a frown, the young man took up his broom, moving aside to allow Yoseph to slip by him. His tongue licked at the pieces of Cheeto in his teeth, gulping them down. The piano music had done its work. He had sinned against himself.
Yoseph turned back and the young man, closer than he was before, laid a hand on his shoulder. With a small squeeze, he put on a smile that Yoseph didn’t deserve, having added thievery to his long list of wrongs.
“Past or present?” the man asked, his eyebrows raised in question. Yoseph froze, understanding the man’s question a few seconds later. “Peter is dead.” he replied.
‘Okay.” His voice didn’t falter as he nodded at Yoseph’s response. “Past or present?” he asked again.
The same phrase was resistant, refusing to move from Yoseph’s tongue. He repeated his statement, almost pleading. He was met with another nod.
“Past or present?”
Yoseph stared at him, mouth wide with shock by the man’s resilience. His blue eyes were a stark contrast from the waves of fear that threatened to engulf him. The man was filled with peace. Yoseph’s heart flickered in its cage.
Drawing up his broom once more, the man spared a final nod and went behind the counter, leaving Yoseph to gape at the floor, mind in an unfamiliar state of silence. The back door shut with a faint hush, and he blinked, eyes clearer than before. From his soggy pockets, Yoseph withdrew a torn five-dollar bill which he placed on the counter as the rain called out to him, the smell like a thousand Peters’ hitting the asphalt.
“Peter…” Yoseph spoke, unable to finish his sentence. Peter was now something else.