James hadn’t had much to drink. The taste of alcohol really didn’t suit him. He had been a sport and downed a glass, but that was it for him. Harper, on the other hand, had enjoyed himself a bit more exuberantly.
Harper strutted down the sidewalk, James supporting his weight as Harper wrapped an arm around James’ neck and laughed coarsely, his breath rank.
“I don’t know,” James said, answering Harper’s question, trying to ignore the smell. “Don’t like how they, uh, make me feel. Kind of numbs me up…”
“You prefer puking to numbness?” Harper chuckled.
“You know what I don’t get?” James continued. “We have the same condition, right?” Harper nodded, his eyes narrowing a bit as James finished with, “So why do her pills look the same but taste different?”
Harper stuck his foot out, awkwardly struck the sidewalk with it and stumbled forward. James lunged after him, steadied him, looked Harper over as his cousin gathered his thoughts. There was something underneath the drunken stupor, turning wheels that Harper was trying to keep repressed.
“What, you took her pills?” Harper asked.
“We’ve got the same condition, right?” James replied.
“Well, that doesn’t mean…” Harper trailed off, his head swinging about as he coughed, then grabbed James’ neck and pulled him in close. “Listen, listen.” He grinned, then tapped James on the chest. “Anything, I mean anybody, tries to mess with you, they gotta answer to me. Unkay?”
“Unkay,” James mockingly mirrored.
“And you know me,” Harper went on, “you know I’m looking out for you. You know I’d never lie to you, right?”
James nodded, shrugged. He hoped that was true.
“So you gotta keep taking your pills,” Harper instructed. “Just for six more months. You… you do it for six months, and you’ll be free and clear of this thing…”
“Yeah,” James sighed, looking ahead. Fat chance. Harper was hiding something. Maybe he wasn’t lying, but omission in this case might still be deception. James felt a knot in his stomach, and not the usual one. Maybe there was nobody he could trust.
And that’s when he saw the homeless man, across the street, in an alley. Again he felt the ping of conscience for his earlier thoughts against the poor soul, and his inability to make up for them. Of course his need was selfish. It was about feeling better about himself. He knew that. But surely there were far worse ways to make oneself feel better.
Like getting drunk off your ass.
“Six more months,” Harper repeated. “And then the nightmares’ll stop. And you’ll stop getting so damn gloomy.”
James looked back at Harper, steadied him again, and stopped walking. “Can we hold up a sec?”
“Wha, wha…” Harper mumbled, confused.
“You got a couple bucks?” James asked, turning his focus back to the man across the street.
Harper followed his line of sight, then grinned and nodded.
The homeless man sat, his head hung, his eyes closed, the tin cup at his feet. Half asleep, half meditating. It had been three years since he’d opened his eyes on the side of the road one cold December morning, no recollection of who he was or how he got there. Only the incredible feeling that he had lost something of great value.
Since that day, a great many shadows and dreams percolated his subconscious, teasing him with full revelations, and then returning to undefined obscurities. He would dream of faces, and know them for an instant, and weep over them. Particularly two faces drew tears, a man and woman. They looked nothing like him, but he felt… and then the recognition would dissipate, as would their faces. Only the heartbreak remained.
Eventually he surmised that he had lost his family. Obviously he had, for he did not know who he was, but he had to have come from somewhere. Something simply does not come from nothing. Something caused him to be. Surely he had parents, perhaps he had children of his own, even. He had decided to write the words “Lost Family” on a cardboard sign as a crude means of signaling anybody that might recognize him.
But this much he knew: his faith. He had realized he was a Christian when, one day, he started instinctively praying, talking to Jesus. When he heard the subtle voice within his head respond, he figured either he was in fact conversing with the Almighty, or it was simply the madness that had robbed him of all memory. He chose the former, and clung to the hope that it would rectify the latter.
But if not, he would not lose his faith. It was all he had, now. It gave him purpose, and hope. And he believed that it was Jesus that led people to give him the money necessary to survive, day to day. He had never missed a meal. Incapable of working, but always able to find nourishment.
And, as he pondered all these things, the tin cup tinkled.
The man opened his eyes, and he looked up to see a young man, almost a boy, standing over him. He squinted, saw through the alley’s shadows the boy’s eyes. It was the kind soul from the grocery store.
“Thanks, man,” he said to the boy. “What’s your name?”
“James,” the boy replied.
As the boy’s voice sounded, a great wave overwhelmed the homeless man, goosebumps rising all over his body. He shook with the tingling, and gripped himself, rocking. The voice inside was loud, so loud that the words couldn’t be heard. And the feeling was strong: great sorrow, great compassion. He wept as he rocked.
“Jesus, bless James, Jesus, bless James, Jesus, bless James,” he muttered uncontrollably.
The boy was understandably unsettled, but he couldn’t help the display. Such an overwhelming need to pray for the child. His mouth ran off with his soul, leaving the mind behind, and sputtered incomprehensible gibberish.
James turned back, and left the broken shell of a man in the alley.
“Let him find what he should, let him find what he should,” the man chanted before returning to the spiritual babbling.
What a fool I am. But His fool, I must be.