Loud screaming cuts through my dream and I’m plunged into a pitch black room. No sound. No audible one anyway.
I turn my head sideways and there is Alex, not so soundly asleep. His head goes left and right and left and right. Fists clenched, sweat dripping down his temple.
Scream splits my head in two. A familiar one, sadly. Alex whimpers in his sleep. Another scream.
The scream belongs to a 10-year-old boy who I’ve known for 7 years now. Who has become a sculpted man with midnight skin and moon-lit black hair.
Alex screams again but his lips don’t do so much as twitch. I would wake him up if I knew it would do him any good. But last time I did that he just laid awake for the rest of the night, trying to hide his thoughts and pain from me until I moved above him and kissed him hard.
“Luther…” he said. I stopped him with my palm straight in front of him. “But…” he said and I kissed him again. My blond hair fell like a veil between us and the world.
I held my hand to his face with 2 fingers making a circle and 3 relaxed above them. I meant “It’s okay”. It’s okay I hear your thoughts, It’s okay you are hurting and that that is killing me.
“I’m sorry” he said. His lips steady. He had thought it.
I did the sign for okay again, gifting him with a little smile. His expression softened, and he kissed me with pain, passion and desperation. I returned the gesture.
But I won’t wake him up tonight. He needs sleep even if it’s of poor quality. So I lay beside him and I place my head on his shoulder. My curls spill all over his soft skin. His screams still echo in my brain followed by heavy footsteps and his father’s voice. Always telling him what a burden he is, how good they would be if he had never been born and so on and so on. Little 10-year-old Alex can do nothing but squirm, keep quiet and wait for the next hit.
A tear rolls down my cheek and hits his shoulder. So much pain trapped in such a small body. I wish I could end it. I wish I could stop his pain. Kick it out the door and never let it in again.
I look to my right. I see again the 10-year-old boy sneaking through my window at night to play. It all started in a night like this one…
Scream shatters me. I place my hand on his chest trying to stop it and Alex from shaking. His heart is racing. My white fingers contrast his burning dark skin. Yin and yang my mom said once while looking at us. I slightly smile at the memory.
His heart rate calms beneath my touch and the screaming subsides. His fingers interlock with mine over his chest. No more nightmares tonight.
But I can’t sleep. I think about how we met.
I was 9 years old, lonely, unable to make a sound and totally scared of the voices in my head. I had always heard them but I always assumed I had missed the twitch of lips. Even considered that my eyes were as bad as my vocal cords.
Then, one night when passing through the windows 3 floors below, sneaking through the metal staircase on the side of the building, I heard it. The loudest scream I had ever heard.
It was coming from the window on my left. I looked through it. There was a small boy, curled into a ball on his bed. His father was pacing the room rapidly. He yelled something I couldn’t hear because of the intensifying screaming in my head. One step and he was right above Alex. He hit his head hard and stormed out the room. I froze unable to take in a breath. The door closed with a bang and startled little Alex and me.
The boy kept crying curled into his little ball in the semi-lit room. The screaming in his head got so loud I couldn’t breathe or think. My head was pulsing, my vision was smudged, my heart was threatening to explode. I considered jumping off the staircase. It was high enough, it would do the job. It would stop the screaming. Then again it wouldn’t stop for the little boy. Left so alone.
I knocked on the window hesitantly. The little boy startled and moved closer. Tears welled in his brown eyes when they met mine. He opened the window.
I made the symbol for okay. He looked confused. He had no idea what that meant. I pointed at a white board hanged on his wall. He moved away from the window and I snuck in.
I picked the marker and wrote “Are you okay?”. He shook his head. “I’m sorry” I wrote.
He clumsily repeated the okay sign he saw me do and put one finger more than necessary in the circle. I gifted him with a little smile and moved closer to him. I separated his middle finger from his index finger and thumb. “It’s okay” he meant. I smiled after some light reached his eyes.
“Luther” I wrote on the board. “I’m Alex” he said.
We spent the rest of the night with me teaching him how to spell our names in sign language. And from that day forward we became like brothers.
And we would have been ones. Well, if it wasn’t for the insatiable desire to kiss him. Luckily he beat me to the punch and did the deed first. Otherwise, I doubt I would have mustered up the courage to do it.
It’s been 2 years since then and now, like most nights, we sleep together in my bed just 3 floors above his.
Alex’s face is becoming more visible as darkness steps aside. Dawn. I caress his face and his eyes open. I love them. “Good morning” he thinks, knowing I can hear him. I offer a generous smile in return. I don’t really need sign language with Alex anymore. We know each other too well. I look at him, and he bites his lip, moves above me and pinches me to the bed with a kiss.
After a few minutes I watch his fully-clothed figure sneak out of my window.
The voices get too loud. Damn it.
I hold my head for a couple of minutes trying to smother them but the noise of a few hundred awakening minds is not so easy to restrain. I can’t ever shut them off entirely. They are always there but at night most of them are not so loud. Good thing my powers don’t have a bigger range. If right now they extended further than the building I would be totally lost.
My headache intensifies while I’m getting ready. When I bend to tie my shoe a voice splits my head in two and I fall forward, hitting my knee.
“Today is the day. I can’t stand this anymore. I can’t just can’t. I need peace.” Lightning flashes through my eyes as I realize this voice belongs to Mr. Johnson. I focus on that light, searching for one thread among hundreds. And I grab it.
Faces. Blood. I hear gunshots, I smell death and blood. So many faces. So many eyes devoid of life.
I stumble to the bathroom. Fall on my knees and throw my dinner in the toilet.
More faces stuff my mind. The smell of blood is so strong I can hardly stand it. Bodies everywhere in the mud.
But of course. He was a marine. Those faces must belong to people who he’s killed. Or lost? I hold my head, running fingers through my hair. I need the headache to stop. I need the faces to go.
Maybe he does too. That’s why he wants to kill himself.
I stand up, wash my teeth and face. The smell of blood still fills my nostrils. The voices deafen me. But I focus on Mr. Johnson and only him.
I hold onto the sink and dive in his head.
Shoelaces, clock on the wall, he puts his coat on.
I fall as the faces hit me again.
So much blood. A hand holding a gun. He pulls the trigger.
“No!” a yell escapes my lips.
Damn it! Focus Luther. Focus.
A bridge emerges from the smoky images of war. I realize that’s 5 minutes away from here.
I grab my notebook and my jacket as I run through the apartment.
My parents are still asleep so there is no one to stop me from storming out. One step, two steps…and I’m on the street. Another hurricane of voices gashes my brain.
No, no, no, no, no. Focus on him. Only on him.
I run as fast as I can while trying to block the images. The faces. The blood. I’m choking on the smoke even though I know it isn’t real.
I reach the bridge and there he is with his black suit and coat. Standing so close to the railing. Dangerously so.
I walk to him. I’m trying not to alert him because he doesn’t look like a jumper, yet. I scribble words on my notebook while approaching him.
As I touch his shoulder, I hear a loud BANG. I feel burning in my stomach. His face emerges from the smoke of war. The war in his head.
“Are you okay, Luther?” my neighbor asks concerned. I think his internal pain is painted on my face even though his face is calm. My stomach still burns. He must have been shot. Probably that’s why they send him home after only 3 years of service.
The river under the bridge passes through his mind. Its waters sway peacefully.
I turn my notebook towards him. “DON’T JUMP! Please!” it says.
“Who said I was going to, kiddo? I’m just watching the sunrise.” He says with faint smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. “You did.” I write so he can see. “I heard you.”
“You have no idea what you are talking about, kid. Go on your way.” he says softly and gives me a slight nudge to go. “NO” I write.
He looks at me puzzled. Air whistles through his teeth when he takes a deep breath. I hold my hands up and tilt my head. I need him to wait. I point at my notebook and give him a second. He says “Okay” and I start writing.
A few seconds later I show it to him. It says “I can’t imagine what it’s like to live with the faces every day. With the gunshots and helicopters lurking behind the tapping of the shower, the loud closing of the car door and the crackle of the fire. I don’t know what it’s like to smell blood and death and smoke wherever you go.” Even though right now I know as much as he does because I can’t get out of his head. “And I don’t know what it’s like to kill people, to see the light leave their eyes.”
A pile of bodies appears briefly through his mind. Then faces take its place again.
He sighs and I see tears welling in his eyes.
“Then why are you here. Saying…ugh, pardon me, writing all of this.” He asks puzzled. I look him in the eyes then write down. “Because I DO know what it’s like to feel ALONE. What it’s like to never have silence in your mind…” The pressure of the souls passing through the bridge threatens to overwhelm me. I feel like someone is hitting my head with a sledge hammer. “…I know what it’s like to not be able to sleep, breathe, think because of the images hanging in the corner of your eye.”
I give him the notebook and sit down with my back against the railing. My hands are shaking and I’m trying to catch my breath.
So many people are passing by. Some worried about undelivered work, some anxious about a meet, some wrapped in thoughts of kisses they shared with their loved ones just minutes ago. I let them flash through my mind. I’m tired of fighting them.
Mr. Johnson sits beside me on the ground. He, in his black suit, and me, in my worn out jeans, hoodie and leather jacket. What an odd pair.
He gives me back my notebook. “How do I live with it?” he mutters. I shrug. I wish I knew Mr. Johnson. I wish I knew.
We just sit there for a few minutes.
“Maybe you just TRY today. Then try tomorrow. And keep trying until it disappears.” I write down and show him the written words.
“And if that is not enough?” he mumbles. I realize I’m just a 16-year-old boy, trying to help a 30-year-old ex-marine. Who am I to even speak to him?
I hear a woman’s voice. She is thinking about her sick daughter and medications. Desperate but strong in her need to help her kid.
I put down slowly “Maybe we use our pain to try to help others. Then they wouldn’t have to suffer alone like we do. Or maybe they wouldn’t have to suffer at all” I show him the words. He stares at the notebook on my legs for what seems like an eternity.
“Can I take this?” he requests pointing at my notebook. I look at him confused. “The page” he elaborates and I nod. I rip it from the notebook and give it to him. He folds it and puts it in his pocket.
Then I realize his mind is silent. And it has been for a while now. Weird.
I dig a bit trying to figure out if he still intends to jump. The faces, the blood, the smoke, the gunfire are still there, but they are not so vivid anymore, the shots are not so loud.
“Thanks, kid. I appreciate what you did here. Let’s go back to our building.” he offers. “I think I should do something nice for my wife and your parents must be worried about you” he elaborates. I doubt that they worry since I disappear often enough. Still, I grab his hand and let him take me back to the building.
I get home and the day continues. Breakfast, teacher. I’m a home student because school is too loud with all those noisy minds. Lunch, lessons, work out, dinner.
The faces stay with me. The blood, the fire, the burning of a bullet in my gut.
“Luther, Luther, LUTHER” Alex calls outside my window. I realize I’ve been staring at the clock. I get up slowly, drag my legs across the room and open the window. My whole body hurts especially my head.
I move away from the window so Alex can enter. By now my parents are soundly asleep. I can feel it.
I sit on the windowsill. My head is too heavy to hold, so I let it drop between my shoulders.
“You okay?” Alex asks. I shrug. “You did it again, didn’t you?” concern drops from his voice. I nod positively.
He kneels between my legs and grabs my head gently with his hands. His palms are warm. Or am I freezing? He lifts my head, so he can look into my eyes. I try to block the noise. I squeeze my eyes shut.
I don’t want to read his mind but the words still enter my head “Maybe you should stop with that. Look what it’s doing to you.” his voice echoes in my skull. I bite my lip. I look at him and I want to say “how” but no sound comes out and I’m too tired to sign it or reach for my notebook. But he knows.
“Another suicide attempt?” he whispers after a bit. I nod positively.
“Wanna talk about it?” he asks. I smile because of the little pun. He looks confused. Then he realizes what he has said. A smile curls the edges of his lips. “Sorry.” he thinks and I shake my head with a smile.
I join him on the floor and lay my head on his thigh. His fingers twist my curls gently and brush my face. I let the noise consume me, losing my hold on it. Then… it fades. The voices get more and more distant as a gray curtain envelops me and I drift into sleep.