Author's note: These characters and events take place in a larger story. I've done my best to include relevant backstory while making it it's own individual story.
Fifteen-year-old Lázaro was warm and safe in Benito’s arms, his body sturdy and solid against Lázaro’s slender ribcage. “I won’t ever leave you,” Benito promised. Lázaro felt Benito deflate, and he opened his eyes. He was at the Paterson Public Library, sat on a dated grey couch. Benito crouched across the room to look at the biographies. Eighteen-year-old Lázaro pushed himself up, sinking deeper into the couch’s cushion. He tightened his core, trying to swing upright without his arms. He sank deeper, his body disappearing into the shadowy crevice.
“Benito! Help me!” This is a dream, his consciousness reminded him, breaching through his panic. This never happened.
Benito looked from where he crouched. “I can’t. You’re a bad person, Lázaro. You steal from people. What if you steal something from me?”
“I don’t have a choice! Reina makes me!” Wake up. Wake. Up. Lázaro struggled, and suddenly he was in bed, his side burning hot and painful. You’ve already lived this. The air was viscous sap, but his arms were his own as he climbed up from the bed. He opened the bedroom door, the knob beneath his fingers transforming into a car door handle. Twenty-five-year-old Lázaro ducked through the metal doorframe and fell into the passenger seat. Aquiles was behind the wheel and Emiliano sat in the back. “Ready to do Reina’s dirty work, cabrón?” Emiliano said. The engine revved and the road whizzed forwards. They collided with a sign reading Welcome To New York. As the hood of the car erupted in flames, the street beneath them crumbled. Lázaro tumbled down, down, down.
Thirty-eight-year-old Lázaro jolted awake, his wifebeater sweaty against his back. He peeled it off, tossing it to the side, then climbed out of bed. The day was his to do whatever he wanted; No Reina hounding him to make her money or Emiliano and Aquiles breathing down his neck. He scratched at the pale scars across his right ribcage, then threw on a Hanes tee and some basketball shorts. He’d been having weird dreams for the past month, and he hated how they lingered after he woke up, like a stalker in the night. The only way he knew how to get rid of the unease was to walk it off, so he made his way out of his room and down the stairs, through the front door.
Usually, he took a left out of Reina’s house, but today he went right, into the city. He kept his head down as he followed the flow of the morning traffic, brisk and uninviting. The dream clung to his mind, sparking along the neurons in his brain. It was Benito’s words that cut deepest; despite the decades separating them, Benito made Lázaro feel like he was a little boy all over again. You’re a bad person, Lázaro, dream Benito repeated in his head. I know, Lázaro thought back.
Soon the traffic slowed, until it was just him and the homeless on the streets. He reached for his wallet only to find his pockets empty, nodding to them uselessly instead. The dream had been the most intense yet. He was sure the car fire and crumbling road meant something, but he forced the thought deep down as he looked up at the buildings blocking out the sky. I thought it was around here somewhere, he thought.
Rounding the corner, he spotted the familiar grey pillars and concrete steps. He climbed up them, craning his neck to read the sign: Paterson Public Library. As he entered, the familiar yellow lights washed the tension from his shoulders, the low buzz of people shushing away his spiraling mind. I wonder… Lázaro walked past the biographies and spotted the couch from his dream, from his childhood, now a relic suspended in time. He sat down slowly, resting his head against the cushion with a sigh. The softness surrounded him, and for a second adrenaline spiked through his veins, but when he shifted they didn’t suck him in. He was okay.
“Lázaro? Is that you?”
Lázaro’s eyes flew open, his heartbeat erratic in his chest. It couldn’t be. But it was—Benito, stood in front of him, staring. He sat up straight, straightening his shirt. “Benito. It’s you. I mean, hey—hello.” He shook his head. Shut up shut up shut up. “I didn’t think you lived around here anymore.”
“I don’t.” Benito had grown a little gut in middle age, and his black stubble was speckled with grey, but his face, his eyes, his voice—it brought Lázaro back. “I had a free day and decided to make a quick trip for old times’ sake.” He pointed at the space next to Lázaro. “Mind if I sit?”
He shook his head. Benito stepped forwards and sat down, radiating heat. Benito turned his head towards Lázaro, and he fought the urge to scoot back. He’d forgotten how intense Benito was; the dream Benito was a diluted memory, and Lázaro had gotten used to keeping people an arm’s length away. The tension of unspoken words strained like an overtaxed rubber band. “So, what have you been up to?” Lázaro asked.
He resettled into the couch while listening to Benito summarize his life: he was a literature professor, his students were all bright and he assigned only the best books, his coworkers were friendly and the workload fiendish. He talked of his husband Frances and his sister Luisa, his parents and his new hobbies—improv and writing comics. Lázaro nodded along, laughing, asking questions. A storm brewed inside him—he was happy for Benito’s happiness; he always knew Benito would be somebody great. But he was also ashamed of how his life paled in comparison. And he ached with sadness at the thought of what could’ve been if he’d just stayed.
“Jesus, I’ve been talking forever,” Benito said. “You’re still the good listener you were back in the day, Lázaro. Come on, tell me what’s happening in your life.” Benito knocked into Lázaro good-naturedly. “You seeing anybody? Got a new gig going?”
Lázaro rubbed the back of his neck. “I’m not seeing anybody. I haven’t really, since, well…” He glanced up at Benito, then looked away. Why was he acting like this? Almost a lifetime of smack talk with Emiliano and Aquiles melted like snow in the rain. “And I’m still with Reina, too. Doing, well, you know.”
“Robbing houses.” Benito’s face was open, unjudging. It overwhelmed Lázaro. They were nearly the same age, but he felt so much younger. Why hadn’t he lied? Said he worked at a grocery store or something? Anger surged from nowhere, at his own incompetence, at Benito’s unexpected kindness.
“Yeah. And I’ve gotten pretty good at it too,” he said bitterly.
Benito sighed. Lázaro felt the couch shift as Benito leaned back into the cushion. They sat in silence. Lázaro deliberated walking off without a backwards glance, but he couldn’t do that. Not to Benito.
“Have you tried leaving?” Benito asked softly, staring at the ceiling.
Lázaro scoffed, surprised at the simple question. “I mean, I can’t exactly leave. You know that.”
Benito rolled his head to look at Lázaro. “Your debt has to be paid off by now.” He pointed a finger at Lázaro, accidentally grazing his chest. “How are the scars, by the way? I guess they’d be healed by now.”
Lázaro rubbed his chest where Benito had touched it, then crossed his arms to shield his torso. “They’re just little white marks now. And I know it is. But I’m always being watched— Reina has a network. If I run and get caught, I’ll be worse off than I was.”
“And if you don’t get caught?”
Lázaro blanked. Was this a trick question? “I guess that would be it. I’d be free.”
Benito sat up straight. He placed his palms on his denim clad thighs. “Look, I know you’re in a difficult situation. But don’t you have dreams, Lázaro? Even little ones? Who says you can’t do something when you’re not on call, like take a class or join a group?” Benito scratched at the thick fabric. “I’m just worried you’ve decided, since you’re in a bad situation, that you don’t have permission to live.”
Permission to live? How was he supposed to live when he was practically held hostage? Benito didn’t understand what it was to be him. Just because he could pack up and leave Jersey in a day didn’t mean somebody else could do the same thing. “Tell me, Benito, since you see it all so clearly, what I should be doing.” Lázaro tightened his crossed arms. “I’m all ears.”
“Lázaro, come on. I’m just saying, you’re almost forty. You have more options than when you were eighteen. And I’m not saying it would be easy to walk away, but staying doesn’t make your situation any better. I’m just worried—” Benito leaned in close to whisper— “you’ll get caught in somebody’s house. What will you do? Tell the police you’re paying some weird debt you racked up as a teenager?” Benito sat back normally, sighing. Lázaro didn’t want to hear what Benito was saying, but he didn’t have a choice. The truth of his words punctured his anger, leaving fear in its place. “What if you just got on the bus one day, took it to New York, and never came back?”
“I don’t know,” Lázaro said. It was too much; it was everything he already knew. I’m not ready, he lied to himself, the thought tethering him down. “I’ve never been to New York.”
Benito smiled. “That’s not the point, and you know it.” His smile melted; his brow set seriously. “Lázaro, you’re a good person. You always have been. I’m afraid house robbing’s made you forget that and believe something else.”
Lázaro wanted to lighten Benito’s words with a joke, but none came to him. The heaviness within him grew, pressing on his chest. “How could you know that? You haven’t seen me in twenty years.”
Benito shrugged. “I don’t think you could be anything else.”
Suddenly tears were rolling down Lázaro’s cheeks. He wiped them away with his sleeve, embarrassed. “I don’t know why I’m crying.” Benito slung his arm around Lázaro, giving his shoulders a squeeze, and more tears escaped. He let himself lean against Benito’s solid frame. “I just—this thing with Reina has gone on for so long. And I know I could leave; she doesn’t have enough resources to branch out further than Jersey. But I don’t know what I would do if I left.” He wiped more tears away. “I mean, I’ve never even been outside of the state.”
Benito let his arm drop and grabbed Lázaro’s left shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “I know. But waiting will just make it scarier. You’re sharp, Lázaro. Always have been. Any place would hire you, especially if you had a good reference like, say, a college professor.” Benito raised his eyebrows.
Lázaro smiled. “I guess.”
“Here,” Benito reached into his back pocket, pulling out his wallet. “If you need anything, you can email me or call my office.” He handed Lázaro his business card, colored a pale rainbow. Lázaro tucked it into his pocket. Benito looked Lázaro in the eyes, his gaze intense. “You deserve more, Lázaro.”
Lázaro blinked. “I know.” He didn’t believe the words, but maybe if he said them enough, he would.
Benito smiled. He got up from the couch, straightening his jeans. He looked around at the stacks. “There’s a lot of good memories here, huh?” he said.
Lázaro stood up as well, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Sure is.”
Benito stepped in, arms outstretched, and Lázaro met him, hugging him tight. “Take care of yourself,” Benito whispered into his ear.
Lázaro found himself blinking back tears. “I will. You too, Benito.”
Benito let go, and Lázaro did too, taking a step back. Benito waved. “Goodbye. Use that business card, yeah?”
Lázaro nodded his head. He watched Benito walk away, and exhaled heavily. From the slant of the sun through the windows, he judged he still had the second half of afternoon ahead of him. He looked at the stacks, then headed for the nonfiction section. There had to be something on New York.