He opened his eyes.
Darkness all around him, and lights, far away. He let his eyelids fall shut again, curtaining the world.
He could smell, though. Decomposing trash, rain on pavement, old oil, still older booze.
He opened his eyes again, squinting and shifting his eyes, not daring to move his head.
Far away he saw streetlights, and their reflections in puddles on a distant road. Cars passed in a fury, busy people rushing through their lives… past him.
What was he doing here… in this alley? He’d been in a hurry to get home, to show something to his mom. Something important, he remembered, but what? Grades—that was it. But not just any grade…a history project they’d worked on together. So he’d cut through this alley, taken the forbidden shortcut.
And found out why it had been forbidden.
He could feel the wound in his back—the stinging, burning sensation that got worse when he moved. They’d shoved him, taunting him, laughing at his fear, and finally, for no reason at all, one of them had shoved a knife into his back. For no reason at all.
When was a person dead, he wondered? When their heat stopped? He held his breath, feeling his heart working, pushing blood. He took a shallow breath and concentrated on the air in his lungs. He was alive.
But sometimes… sometimes, he remembered, that didn’t mean much. He remembered when his grandmother died, how she seemed to be gone long before her body knew to stop. ‘Too stubborn to let go,’ the doctor told his family, shaking his head.
So what then? He opened his eyes again, looking at the lights. You die when…what?
When your soul leaves—you die when your soul leaves. He’d heard that before, somewhere. Maybe he’d heard it on a church service on TV, or maybe from one of his grandparents. He certainly hadn’t heard it from his mom or his brothers.
He’d asked his mom once about his soul. He’d spent the night at Pete York’s. At bedtime Mrs. York knelt beside the bed with her son. He knelt with them, but he didn’t know why. “…I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” they’d said. But when he asked his mom about it she shrugged.
“I don’t know…” she’d faltered, slowing as she washed a plate. “It isn’t anything the scientists can measure, not anything the doctors can find. It might be real, or it might just be like the boogieman…just something made up to keep little boys in line.” She’d patted him on top of the head, depositing a puff of dish soap bubbles on his curls.
“Kind of like God, I guess. Nobody can say for sure.”
He lay there, feeling the sting in his back, breathing, aware of his heartbeat and the lights in the distance.
And a presence, someone near him. He looked around, this time being so daring as to turn his head against the roughness of the asphalt beneath him. A man stepped toward him and knelt at his side.
“Help is coming,” a gentle voice assured him. “They’re almost here.”
He breathed a sigh of relief.
“Would you like me to pray with you?” the man asked.
“Great Father,” the smooth voice said, “let this child feel You here. Let him feel Your peace. Touch his soul, even as You touch his body. Let him know Your love and truth. Bring him into Your family.”
He heard footfalls, frantic voices. “He won’t be here,” his mother insisted to someone. “He knows not to come through here. I’ve told him!”
“Mom—” His older brother’s voice.
He felt his mother’s hands, heard his brother dial 9-1-1 on his cell phone and direct help to the alley.
“Baby,” his mother cried. He could feel her tears, hot on his face. “Baby, we’re here! Help’s on the way.”
“I know,” he whispered. “The man told me.”
His mother jerked up, looking around. “Where?” Her voice sounded fearful, alert. “Who, honey?”
“The man praying for me…when you came.”
“He prayed for me…for my soul, even.” He pictured the man in his mind; he could remember the feel of his presence, feel the calmness that seemed to envelop him at the man’s words. But he couldn’t remember anything about his face—nothing at all.
“Baby, there was no one here when we got here. You were alone.”
But he hadn’t been. And he knew he'd never be alone again.
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