The Choice

There comes a time in life when the unexplainable happens. Things no one could understand or explain or justify to be right or wrong. Odd and frightening situations that occur to change your point of view, to make you question life itself.

The cold winter winds were just beginning to find themselves blowing down the streets of New York. They settled themselves in the cracks of the street and folded themselves in every corner. The people dug out their coats and scarves, wrapping the warmth they still had close to their hearts. I stopped at a side vendor, taking the warm scent of vanilla, honey and the comfort of coffee in the cold morning.

“Hey Don!” I called as I entered the front of the line.

“Hey Michael! The usual?” He was already reaching for the cup.

“Yes, thanks Don.”

“No problem. You stay warm today.” Handing me my coffee, I thanked him and continued on my way to the subways. The cup warmed my bare fingers graciously against the biting cold. It was a short walk from Don’s stand to the subway and I was careful to not slip on the icy stairs as I descended into dark luminescent lights. People filed down the halls and into the turnstiles one at a time, mechanically sliding their cards to gain entry.

We filed next to the empty tracks waiting for the train to arrive and take us to where ever it was we needed. I was heading downtown to my job at the New York Times. I was a supervisor; paid to watch others write. Very exciting.

Waiting patiently I sipped on my hot coffee, breathing in the scents of warm cinnamon and vanilla mixing with the coffee bean, when I heard a scream. Along with every other head, I turned to see what had happened. A man was running  down the hall, holding something that was presumably not his and in the other, he held a gun. Waving it around as he ran, everyone cleared the way for him until the nearby cops hidden behind the wall and pillar, jumped and tackled him to the ground, knocking some bystanders down in the process. They wrestled him until he lay flat on his stomach. Kicking his gun away, they jerked his hands behind his back and cuffed him abruptly.

Another set of screams had sounded from down in the tracks and from where the cops had crashed into the bystanders. A mother screamed for her child who had been knocked down in the tracks, and a young woman screamed from a broken leg, blood seeping out from her pants and littering the metal tracks beneath her. The small boy, lay unconscious and sprawled out as the train quickly came around the bend in the distance. The young woman frantically tried to stand but crumpled to the tracks below her.

Everyone seemed frozen at what was about to happen but I could not wait. Dropping my coffee I jumped down into the tracks and sprinted to the woman and unconscious child. The train neared, frantically blowing its horn and applying the emergency brakes, but it was too near for it to stop in time. I looked down at the two, the woman cried as she looked from me to the child who lay a few feet passed her. I realized I only had enough time to save one. Quickly I reached down and threw the woman over my shoulder and climbed up out of the tracks just as the train flew by.

The train horns and screams drowned out any sickening noise I could have heard as the mother cried. I carried the woman away and set her down against the wall away from the shocked stares. She stared at me too, and I tried not to reflect on what I had just done. Was it wrong? Everyone here seemed to think so as they watched me check on the woman.

“What is your name?” I asked. It took a minute for her to answer, as if she was trying to register the events that saved her life and the costs that it barred.

“Olivia… Stronghold.” Nothing more than a whisper. I sighed, I needed to know. I knew it would haunt me until the day I, myself, would draw my last breath, but I felt it necessary.

“How old are you.” Nothing more than a whisper. She looked up at me and tears streamed down her face, “I’m 22”. She turned her face down to hide the tears. I looked away and stood up to see the mother walking towards me. I didn’t move, there was no where to go. A swift hand ran across my face, a fist to my chest and more repeated beatings as the woman lashed out.

“He was only 8! Alex was only 8! How could you not save a child, you monster! He was going to live! We just finished chemo!” She sobbed as her beatings slowly ebbed away and she slipped to the floor, “He was going to live.” Whimpers echoed down the hall as the two women cried. I turned away and the crowd was staring, not at the women or at the police and ambulance crew that rushed down the stairs, but at me. Some were blank, some were angry, most were sad, but none were sympathetic, at least towards me. They reflected a bitterness, an almost hate. I could hear their thoughts being projected at me.

“What kind of monster leaves a child to die.” ”He was only a child. He was only 8.” “What makes the girl worthy to live over the boy.” “You’re not God!”

I stumbled away from the crowd and up the stairs. I needed to get away. I fell, climbing away from the hell I had created. Everything was a blur. I didn’t feel the cold biting at my bare skin, trying to rip the clothes away from my body and expose me to the world.

I wouldn’t remember the walk home. I wouldn’t hear Don as he called out to see if I was okay. I wouldn’t notice the worried stares as I staggered home. I felt the crushing feeling of gravity as I rode the elevator up the apartment building. The final ding rang through my ears and pierced my temples like a sharp blade. I cringed at the pain and fell through my door way with shaking hands. The door slammed and I used the wall to support me as I made my way to the bathroom. Light poured from above the mirror and squeezed my eyes until they watered. I didn’t notice the blood stains on my shirt until the crimson popped out in my disheveled reflection. I looked down and felt the sticky wet cling to my fingers and soak through to my chest.

It wasn’t mine, but it shouldn’t have been there at all. I ripped off the shirt and threw it to the ground. I took off all my clothes and stepped into the shower. The water poured out and in a freezing cold, the coldest I had ever felt in my life. But I didn’t change it; I embraced it. I let the cold rush over me, let it seep into my bones. The water cried down the walls and down my skin, as I cried along with them. Salty tears mixing with shower water and disappearing down the drain. I longed to join them, to slip away through the cracks and fall away where I wouldn’t be seen. I sat in the cold, cramped area of the tub. The water wouldn’t wash my worries away this time. Red trails swirled away and slid off of my skin.

It wasn’t wrong. I saved a life, there’s never anything wrong with saving a life… “But it was the wrong one.” The voices of all the people in the subway called to me, they reminded me of all the times in history when the children were saved first, then the women, then the men. I don’t know why I chose the 22 year old over the child. She was closer? It was instinct? I didn’t want to die, yet I was brave enough to jump in front of a train.  There would be no thank yous for me. Only broken hearts and a long haunting feeling of unbelonging.

What would that child have been? The struggles he had gone through. He had beat cancer and for what? To be pushed in front of a train by the police and left to die by a stranger. What rotten fate life had disposed on him. Maybe life had a way of taking out those who defied it, those who were meant to kneel and die. Who instead rose above and walked on life as they saw fit; those were the ones who were taken down.

Alex Bradford was 8. He had Leukemia and was not meant to walk away from it. He would later be described as a miracle child.  His mother Marisa, a guidance counselor at Manhattan high school, had taken most of the year off to take her son to radiologists, to attend extensive therapies and to try new hospitals all over the country. It had been six months since the final treatment.  Six months they had had their life back.

Alex began school again, it was rough.  Many kids thought he was weird and therefore they either stayed away from him completely or they made him stay away. He would often walk into his mother’s office at the end of the day with bruises or scrapes, and would swear he just fell at recess. The truth, however, was he was awkward. He’d been away from people to long and just didn’t fit in. It was like waking up from a long painful sleep, to find the world didn’t know what to do with you, so they did nothing at all.  

Today they were on their way to get hot chocolate and coffee on their way to school. Something they had done everyday since they had returned home. But now Marisa sits in the subway as the police and ambulance crew try to figure out how to bring back the rest of her son. She sits against the wall were Olivia sat bleeding before. She sits and remembers.  Remembering the letter that told her her husband wouldn’t be coming back from overseas to  sweep her off her feet and hold her through the night. He would be coming over in a box and she would never get to see his face again. Now there would be another box buried next to him in the Greenwood Cemetery.

Marisa would later, after everyone had filtered through who witnessed the incident, slowly crawl her way up into a standing position and trudge home. She would sit in the kitchen and avoid looking at her son’s belongings that filtered through the apartment. Eventually she would go to her room and collapse in her bed where she would lay all night and the following days after. She laid there for a week, with no food or showering, still dressed in the clothes from the horrid day.  Until the day the police came.

They knocked, but no one came to the door. They came again the next day and knocked but no one answered. Then they opened the unlocked door and ventured into find her soiled body, sunken into the sheets. At first they feared her dead, she had not moved and she barely seemed to breath. Her eyes wide, engaged in some world only she could see as they wandered up the walls. Blurring together all the cracks. She didn’t even notice when she was lifted up and taken away from her home and taken to Fountain House, home for those with Mental Illnesses. Because what else was there to do with someone who decided not to live anymore?

They coaxed her, tried to get her to speak, to eat, but she never moved. Only stared through them. At night they would place her in bed, fluffing her pillow and tucking her in and every morning they picked her up and moved her to a wheelchair. They would wheel her down the hallways and try to get her to talk to others. They brought her to a small conservatory and set her by the small pond so she could listen to the running water while watching the fish chase each other in deformed circles.

I went to visit her once, soon after the incident. She was sitting just in this scene, with the sun on her face by the little watering hole. She didn’t recognize me. It seemed she didn’t recognize anybody, the whole part of her brain had seemed to deteriorate. Her hair and fallen out in chunks, and  her face had sunken in, small craters in the making. She was not near the woman I remembered seeing that awful day. I turned and left after only a few brief minutes and I never returned.

A couple days later a nurse returned in the morning to retrieve Marisa Bradford and send her off in her wheelchair. As she opened the door, she was baffled to find Marisa had disappeared. They searched everywhere for her but the only thing they ever found was a small pile of red ashes on her sheets, glittering in the morning window light.

Olivia Stronghold had been on her way to work at Little Collin’s Coffee House. The only job she could get after she dropped out of college. She came from a wealthy family, but no one would ever know that. She studied law at Yale where she could follow the family tradition. First born was always to become a lawyer at Yale. Struggling through high school to make the grade for Yale, she almost failed. Olivia had barely made it in and her parents had let her know of their disappointment.

She had only been in school a few months when she knew she would never make a good lawyer like her parents. After the end of her freshman year, she ran away from home and dropped out of college. She left most of her things behind and hitched hiked West into the state of New York. It would take a month for the police to find her at a run down gas station and bring her back to her parents.

Her parents were shocked to find she had run away instead of being kidnapped, because who runs away from money and an Ivy League school? With rage her father had beat her unconscious with his fist as her mother walked away. When Olivia woke up she was lying at the end of her long paved drive, on the outside of her locked gated entrance.

She slowly lifted her head and found that one eye was swollen shut and the other was puffy and she could barely see. The entrance guard came around and helped her up. He would keep her safe at his house until she had healed and was fine on her own. Then he gave her some cash and a few shirts that would fit her the best out of his closet and she was sent on her way.

Returning to New York, she looked for work everywhere. She applied to every shop, store, and business down countless streets. But everywhere she went they either didn’t need help or they wanted nothing to do with a Yale dropout. She roamed countless streets, now desperate for anything she could get. She abandoned her small apartment, big enough to fit a twin bed and maybe a table, and lived life on the streets. Saving the last amount of cash she had on food.

Lugging around her last possessions: a backpack that held three shirts, a bottle of water and $76.43, she wandered down a side alley where many of New York’s homeless had set up camp. She sunk down against the brick wall, sitting in piles of unnameable filth. It was night but all you could see in the sky was a dark, hazy orange-blue. She longed to see the stars from her old manor house in the country, not the congested, o-zone infested sky of New York. It had been almost 6 months since she’d been here and she was worse off then what she started.

Pulling her backpack off her shoulders she threw it down beside her and closed her eyes for rest. She barely had time to open her eyes when the sound of running footsteps approached her. A dark figure raced off with her backpack, snatched right from her side. Olivia shoved off the ground and raced to chase him down. Thudding down the echoing alleyway she laboriously caught up to him and latched on to her bag.  They played a game of tug-a-war before a fist shot out of the dark and into her temple. Her head snapped sideways and collided into the brick wall beside her. A bell rang off in the distance as she wobbled forward. Her eyes blurring the dark city together. She waited a few seconds and shook it off, her vision slowly crept back from the dark place it was nearing.

The man had just rounded the corner. She raced off, staggering in zig zags as her head pounded down this never ending crevice she had wandered down. Olivia broke through the alley and into the city beyond. Spinning around she looked for the man who had taken her survival away, but everything had blurred together. A hand reached out and touched her shoulder, she spun to see her mother’s concerned face. Except her mother didn’t have a face like that, her mother was never concerned for her, always just disappointed. Olivia sank to her knees as her eyes filtered to the back of her head.

For awhile everything was just still; still and dark. It was pleasant. She breathed in the quiet and exhaled all her pain. It was loud and ricocheted through her body, leaving invisible bruises on the inside. She remembered a time when life was calm, worry free. A time that took her to the kingdom of trees she used to adventure in as a child. Olivia had found a place behind her house where several pine trees had clumped together and as she dug through the needles she found a socket amongst the middle of the trees. Not very big, but just large enough for her to sit and call her secret spot. Her safe spot.

That’s where she was now, sitting in the grass, closely surrounded by the pines and rummaging of the squirrels. She could just about smell the pine now, but then everything became too bright and she watched in horror as the grass opened up and swallowed her down into the dark ground. No place was safe in this world.

Just as everything became suddenly dark, everything became bright again. Too bright. Olivia moaned as the luminescent lights shone down on her. Her head throbbed and seemed to heavy to lift, so she laid it back down on an air filled pillow.

“Miss? Can you tell me your name?” Olivia was startled to hear someone so close, she looked around. She was at the hospital and a woman was staring patiently at her.

“What? Are you talking to me?” She stared back at the nurse.

“Yes, you have a concussion, can you please tell me your name?”

“It’s Olivia.”

“Alright Olivia, you’re going to be okay, just a small concussion, some bruising and a few stitches. Here is the doctor’s prescription for some pain medication, but other than taking that all you need to do is take it easy, no running or jumping. Alright?” She quickly ripped off the prescription and set it on Olivia’s lap before briskly walking out to attend other patients.

Olivia laid there for awhile, until the nurses started walking past her room and peering in to see if she had gone. Having nowhere else to go, she reluctantly pulled herself out of the air mattress and stumbled to the door. She held her head and read the prescription as she headed toward the exit. Suddenly she found herself bumping into something and falling to the floor.

“Oh sorry about that.” A man’s voice called out to her and she felt steady hands pull her up to a standing position. Tall with kind green eyes peeking out below dark gelled hair, and a smile worth a million dollars looked down at her with interest.

“No it’s okay, thank you for helping me up.” She turned past him when he caught her arm.

“Hey, wait. What’s your name?” He smiled.

“Olivia. Yours?”

“Xavier. What happened to your head?” Wincing at the sight of the bruising skin and stitches that covered my temple and forehead.

I touched it slightly, “I was robbed, and I tried to chase down the guy who took my bag and he punched me and knocked me into the wall… then I don’t know, I woke up here.”

“Wow, you’re a trooper, huh? Do you have a ride home? I can give you a ride if you need.”

“Oh no that’s not necessary, I can find my way.” She stepped away trying to pass him by.

“No really, what side of town you live on?” He stared hopefully, kindly. But there was nothing to say really.

“I don’t live anywhere.” Olivia looked away, embarrassed to say she had been living off the streets with spare cash for awhile now. There was momentary silence before Xavier gently grabbed her arm and pulled her towards the exit.

“Hey where are we going?”

“I’m taking you someplace warm, come on.”

She didn’t have the will to resist him and any place warm was better than wandering the streets or sitting alone in a dark alley and after tonight, those were the places she least wanted to be.

They drove for little while, turning down busy streets and watching the lights pass them by. Eventually they slowed and came to park down a busy street, even during the night. Xavier came around and opened her door and led her into Little Collin’s Coffee Shop. The warmth reached them immediately, as did the rich smells of food cooking and drinks being poured.

Xavier led her to a small table by the window and told her he would be back momentarily. She watched this fancy coffee shop buzz with life at the late hour, as Xavier returned with a sandwich and coffee. He placed them down in front of her and motioned for her to eat.  Olivia shyly thanked him and took her first bite of food in a couple of days. It warmed her mouth and tingled her taste buds delightfully.

He watched her with amusement, ”You like it?” He smiled.

“Yes, it’s very good”. She laughed, “You come here often?”

“Yes, you could say that, along with the other places I own.”

She paused, took another bite, “You own this place?”

“Sure do, you can call me boss from now on.” He winked at her.

“What?” She set the sandwich down and stared at him blankly.

“Well I’m assuming you don’t have a job? How would you like to work here? The pay is good and you can stay in the empty apartment above if you like until you get on your feet.”

Words formed but they were lost in her mouth and simply came out as air. “Well, wow, thank you! But I don’t have any clothes and I’m not presentable to work…”

“No worries, tomorrow we will get you some dress pants and a shirt to work in and you can go up and take a shower now if you like.” He gestured to the back of the room where a door sat in the corner, “that is the door that leads upstairs. It’s furnished.”

The remainder of the night and following days after consisted mainly of training on the job and settling in to this new life. Olivia was on her way to work at Little Collin’s the day she was pushed on to the tracks. Now she sits in the hospital again, this time with a broken leg.

“Knock, knock.” A smile walked through the door adorned with flowers. “I brought these for you. You just can’t seem to stay out of here, can you.” Xavier tried to laugh.

“Apparently not.” She sighed.

While Olivia sat in the hospital, and while Marisa wasted away, I tried to return to my old life. I tried to ignore the things I had done that had destroyed so many lives, it seemed. Nothing was ever the same though afterwards. Everyone who knew me acted like they didn’t and those who didn’t know me made it a point to get close.  To see if I was really as heartless as I seemed.  The days went on with haunting stares and silenced whispers. The chattering noise of keyboards echoing through the room. Fast fingers typing all at once of the many people who sat in their cubicles. The clicking whirred together and came faster and faster, and the screams echoed in my mind. But this time not even the screams and horns could hide the sickening thud and crunch that fell in the tracks.

I abruptly stood up, causing many heads to turn in surprise, maybe even fear. I walked away, through the cubicles and to the elevator. I’m not  a monster… I’m not a monster. It echoed through my head. I felt the stares of everyone in the room watching my back as I waited for the elevator. I tried to ignore it but it intensified too greatly. As I whipped around everyone froze, I captured all their eyes with mine in a strong hold. They were my captives and I wanted them to know the pain they caused, the anxiety I felt.

“What are you doing? Staring at a man, who saved a woman’s life! Get back to work!” I shouted, some yelped in surprise but every head turned back to their monitors. I continued to stare at their hunkered heads, and I, myself jumped when the elevator dinged behind me. Turning slowly, I stepped into the elevator and pressed the button for the bottom floor.  I’m not a monster… not a monster.

The flowers drooped with the cold weather as I entered the hospital doors. The nurse pointed me down the hall. I watched the open doors and the people in them as I continued down the hall. Wheezing victims of life connected to whirring machines, pumping liquid into empty bodies.  Faint eyes leaned toward the open door, the light in them slowly reaching out to steal the youth of people passing by. Draining them of their humanity. Pulling their hearts closer for the taking.

I shook it off, not even realizing I had stopped. I left the wheezing man staring at an empty doorway as I continued down, counting along with the numbered doors. 205…206…207… I stopped, lying in room 207’s bed was Olivia, staring blankly at the ceiling. I stood their, unsure if I should really enter, but just as I was about to back away she turned her head to look at me.  Blank eyes, darker than the wheezing man’s four doors back, watched me. They were emotionless. I cautiously walked over to her bedside and set the wilting flowers down on her table.  A pathetic excuse for our pathetic lives.  She didn’t look at the flowers.  She simply looked at me, then through me, as if I was just a ghost from her past. Coming to haunt her and take her to her grave where she should have been.

I cleared my throat but she didn’t move. I looked nervously back and forth for words to say, but there was nothing. I didn’t want to stay, but I didn’t want to leave either. Turning to the side I pulled up a chair to her bedside. Might as well sit in silence together than alone.

“If you don’t want me here I will leave, but I would like to stay if that is okay.” I looked at her for an answer. Her breathing had gotten deeper and she placed her head back on the propped up pillow, staring at the ceiling.  

We seemed to sit together for ages, silent, except for the slow trickle of liquid seeping through the IV into Olivia’s arm and the steady beep of her heart.  I spaced in thought and was startled when I thought I heard Olivia say something.

“What?” I turned my attention to her.

A long pause, “Why… Why me? Why not the child?” Nothing more than a whisper. I drew my breath. It was the same question I had been asking myself. What everyone else seemed to be asking… but I didn’t know.

“I… I’m not sure… I … don’t know.” I looked away. There was a disgusted sigh and my guilt raged forward.

“That’s not a good enough answer.” I felt her eyes move down from their high place on the ceiling and fall to land on my shoulders. I bore the weight of them. She was the only one left now that I would allow to stare, that I would bare on to my burdens; her weight, her pain.

“What do you want from me?” I questioned, nothing more than a whisper.

“I just want the truth.” I looked up, her eyes swam with depth. A life of pain, a life of unknown, unanswered questions. It was then I was struck with a pain from the past. It shot out at me from the dark corners I kept it buried. Nothing could keep it down this time though. The dark river poured from the room I kept locked away. It poured out down my face. Olivia looked taken back seeing a grown man cry.

“You… You look so much like her.” It came out in a gasp, it shocked me just as much, if not more than Olivia. She stared at me, confused, no longer blank. “Like who?”

I looked down into my hands, the hands that only seemed to cause pain and I was taken back to that street eleven years ago. It was dark. The only light came from a dim, cloud covered moon and the flickering street lights above. I was home visiting one weekend the same time as my sister Margaret was.  A family again, before we both went back to our jobs on opposite sides of the country. Our small town home in Nebraska was nothing compared to New York’s and L.A.’s bustling city streets, but it would always be home.  

We walked together enjoying the newfound time and catching up.  Margaret was always the more lively one, she walked with a liveliness in her step that I would never have.  It would happen as sudden and as unexpected as if God’s hand had reached down out of the sky and stolen the life himself. Margaret danced down the centerline of the street as I watched and laughed from the sidewalk.

“Come on! Come dance with me! You only get to see me once every five years!” She laughed and spun around, holding her arms out for me to join her. I laughed and shook my head, I was to practical to dance in the middle of the street. A truck swerved out of nowhere.

“Margaret!” I screamed, frozen in place, I stood and watched as the truck collided with my sister. The sickening thud rang off through the night as she spun over the windshield and smacked onto the pavement. The truck stopped momentarily then drove off with ferocious speed.

I ran to her. Panting with fear. Blood seeped from her mouth and nose as she looked into my eyes. I fumbled for my phone.

“Hey, hey, hey. No, look at me. We got to have that dance remember. Remember we’re going to dance the night away. You stay with me and I will take you to a place that plays Jazz and we will dance. Just stay.”

The faintest of a smile flickered in the corner of her mouth. She died under the smokey moon and starless sky as the ambulance came. Later on they would track down the truck. The man was 35, and was known by no other name than the town drunk. He collided with Margaret as he drove down the road with no headlights.

Mother would hate me until the day I died for letting my little sister die. “Why didn’t you save her! You could have saved her, gotten her out of the way! You’re a disappointment, you’re not my son!”

“Michael… Michael!” I came back to room 207. Olivia looked at me, waiting for an answer. “Michael, like who?”

“Like my sister… I… couldn’t save her… You look like Margaret.” We both paused, breathing deeply, absorbing the air between us.

“You had a sister, who looked like me?” Trepidation crept through her face.

“Yes, she got ran over and I froze. I don’t know if I would have been able to save her or not but I didn’t even move until after it was over.” More silence. It seemed these days either echoed with silence or rang with a thunderous intensity. There was never a middle ground.

“Thank you.”

“What?”  I stared, that was the last thing I had expected to hear today, the last thing I expected to hear ever.

“Thank you for saving my life and I’m sorry for not being grateful. And don’t argue, just accept it.” She looked at me sternly. I almost could have smiled.

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m sorry about your sister… You’re very brave Michael.” It was then a mutual bond had clicked in our hearts. Many years later it would be like I had a sister again. When she healed and could walk on her own I took her dancing. We danced all over New York. Under the stars on rooftop bars, old buildings that held the faded remembrance of the grand state they once were, and new dance halls that shined with polished wood floors.

We would dance all night before I would return her home. The stars twinkling down on the broken past and faded memories that brought such beauty together.  

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