Copyright © 2016 by Angel Jendrick
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
DOWNTOWN EASTSIDE, VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA
“Mama, we ain’t got no food in the fridge again,” the boy complains, slamming the fridge door closed and trying his best to ignore the rumbling of his tummy. His mama stumbles into the kitchen from the bathroom, her glazed eyes black and blue from the beatings them chumps give her.
“No food, eh? Well what the fuck d’I look like, boy? I can’t be the only money maker in the house! If you want food in the fucking fridge then g’out and getcha job.”
“Mama…,” he mumbles, wanting to argue but realizing it might be wiser if he doesn’t.
She backhands him anyway, just for the hell of it. He cries out and she grabs him by the hair with one skinny hand and the fridge door with the other.
“Don’t ‘mama’ me, Kristopher, y’little snake,” she yells, banging the fridge door against his head over and over again.
Finally, he feels himself fading away….
Kristopher McLean woke up screaming in his bed, tearing the thin blanket from his body and rolling onto the floor to cover his head as he instinctively tried to block the blows he was receiving in his dream. His heart was beating a mile a minute, and his breathing was ragged as he slowly got his bearings.
“Just a nightmare, just a nightmare,” he gasped, squeezing his eyes shut to escape the haunting memories. He felt droplets of sweat trickling down his back, soaking into the holey T-shirt he wore, and he concentrated on the sensation of his hot skin growing cool from the dampness — anything at all other than the sick reality of his life..
Across in the second bed, his best friend, Dobie, stirred, switching positions from his back over to his side and mumbling, “McLean, man. Shut the fuck up, will ya?”
Kris grunted in reply, still trembling as he got to his feet. His full six-foot-five frame towered over everything else in the room, including the lone mattress he called a bed. “So-sorry,” he stammered, holding his head in his hands as he got his jumbled thoughts together. “Had another one.”
Dobie muttered something incoherent, still half asleep. Then, “You wanna hit? Helps me sleep.”
Kris snorted his disgust. “Do I wanna die? Fuck, no, I ain’t slammin’ that shit, Dobie. I’ma go for a run.”
He ignored Dobie’s continued mumbling, instead slipping on his black pullover and grabbing his baseball cap. Next, he reached for his switchblade and tucked it into the back pocket of his jeans. When he was certain Dobie had fallen back asleep, he reached under his mattress for his most precious possession: a tattered and ripped journal that was a good seventeen years old. He silently placed it into his backpack and, after picking up his basketball, he left the room. He walked down the hallway and past Dobie’s mama, Anita, who slept on the pullout sofa in the tiny apartment. He took his time descending the three flights of stairs in the building, twice tripping over a homeless person. Or maybe they were just drunk and passed out. Who knew anymore? It was getting to the point where everyone looked the same to Kris.
Once out in the cool night air, he squared his shoulders and made the walk down Hastings Street with his head held high and his swagger pronounced. He kept the hood of his pullover on his head and his hands in his pockets, and glared at anyone who passed him as if daring them to try something.
They wouldn’t be the first, that was certain.
Since Kris was part of Dobie’s crew — a gang of small time thugs (one of many) on Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside — being out by himself could very well be dangerous to his health if the wrong people happened upon him. However, the need to run free, even for just a while without Dobie breathing down his neck, was well worth the risk of running into people who wanted his ass on a platter.
Still a little messed up by the nightmare he’d had of his dark childhood, he pulled out a cigarette and popped it between his lips as he walked, unsure of where he was heading. There wasn’t much to do at five in the morning in the hood where he lived.
Except buy or sell drugs, or get a hooker.
Mind you, that’s pretty well all there was to do in the daytime too. To see any resemblance of normal life, a person would have to travel two or more blocks away from Hastings Street just to feel somewhat separate from the many homeless and addicted people that resided there. Digging out his stolen mp3 player from the front pocket of his backpack, he turned on the music and bounced the basketball between his legs as he made his way over to Powell Street.
He was so tuned into the rap music he didn’t hear the voice behind him until she touched his shoulder.
Kris jumped back about a foot and swirled around as he pulled out his switchblade. The blade gleamed bright in the faint darkness, startling the three women who’d made the mistake of approaching him.
“Hey, baby, where’s the enemy?” the Asian woman cooed in a sultry manner.
Kris glared at the women. They were local hookers he knew. He yanked out his ear buds in annoyance. “What the fuck are you doin’? You don’t come up behind a fucking dude on the Eastside. Are you crazy? You’s lucky I got reflex.”
“You’re so uptight, Special K,” the second one — a Latino honey — pouted, reaching out to touch him.
For the second time, Kris backed off, shooing them away. “Knock it off, Cara. I ain’t in the mood. If you’s too stupid to listen then go get dead on someone else’s watch.”
“But don’t you want us, baby? You can have me, Special K. Or all three of us. We’ll give you a deal with that body,” Chase, the third woman, commented while twirling her long black hair.
Kris shook his head, turning to walk away. “Believe it or not, ladies, but I don’t gotta pay a woman to have sex with me.”
“That never stopped you before!” Chase called after him.
“Jackass,” he heard the Asian chick mutter.
Kris rolled his eyes in mild irritation as he put his ear buds back in, knowing that, like him, they were just trying to make enough money to get by and survive. He reached the basketball court on Powell Street and then lost track of time running up and down with the ball. For as long as he could remember, he’d always had a basketball either in his hands or somewhere close by, and he guessed it was sort of a release for him — a mental release from all the baggage he’d accumulated over the years, because Lord knew he never had anyone to confide in.
Not that he would, even if he had a sleeve full of names with whom he could trust his secrets. Damn, even Dobie, who he’d known since they were kids, was a loose cannon always looking for ammunition to hold against even his friends.
Dobie was known around the Eastside for his trash-talking dirty mouth, and his 9mm pistol, which he stole off a guy after Dobie had stabbed him for a gram of cocaine. The long, thick jagged scar across his left eye that ran all the way down to his cheekbone was just another example of how dangerous and reckless Dobie Donovan Clarence really was. All the drugs the man took were starting to screw with his mental stability.
Even the physical side of him was wearing thin. Dobie’s skin, dark as cocoa, showed his African decent, but he no longer had the healthy glow he’d had even as recent as six months ago. In addition to the sleeves of tattoos he sported, he’d starting adding track marks over his body. Although he wasn’t a complete addict quite yet, Kris gave it six more months before he figured Dobie’d be a waste.
Before Kris knew it, the sun had risen fully and the streets around him were bustling with vehicles heading to work. Not wanting to leave his backpack unattended with so many people walking past, Kris slowed his game and headed back to the bench. Wiping his sweating brow with the tail of his shirt, he just stood there for a few minutes with his face turned up to the sky.
Long ago, when he’d been young, he’d loved early mornings more than anything else in the world. Witnessing a sunrise through his bedroom window, or listening to the birds chirping, or inhaling the simple fresh breath of freedom he got through that same window, had all been reassuring signs that he’d survived the night once again.
Even though he was only twenty-four, these days he couldn’t care less about the survival bit of the equation. Now he loved early mornings for the sole reason that his crew were late risers, and he could find an hour or so of absolute peace around him before the chaos that was his life began for the day.
Swinging his long leg over the bench, he sat down and dug his journal and a pen out of his bag. With the music still going in his ears, he let the rhythm soothe his troubled thoughts in a way like nothing else could. Tapping his pen along with the beat, and mumbling off-key, Kris began to write:
I was a boy locked up and continually let down—
toughing life out on my own
I searched and searched for that golden crown.
“No, that ain’t right,” Kris muttered aloud, feeling as if he were missing something but not quite sure what. He tapped his leg with the music, closing his eyes and letting his words flow:
I was once a young boy with a home not really a home though, just a roof and four walls.
I once called that roof and four walls a home whenever I wasn’t out stealing food or anything in the mall runnin’ around so small on my own
I had a home.
It wasn’t perfect, but back then what was?
My mom would smile at me when she wasn’t drunk off her ass or shootin’ up that poison sludge.
Kris wrote, and rewrote, and scratched out words to create better ones several times over, but a half hour passed and he was no further ahead. He had a feeling for the beginnings of a poem, and a piece of an ending, but couldn’t for the life of him find that secret component.
His stomach grumbled loudly. He could hear it clearly even over the sound of sirens in the distance. Sighing in frustration, he tossed his journal inside his bag. He then shouldered it and jogged the three blocks to the old fire hall. He reached the property and looked around casually, making sure no one was near enough to watch him. Satisfied, he jumped up onto the fire escape and climbed the stairs to the rooftop.
He pulled out his journal. Next, he pulled out the crumpled plastic grocery bag he always kept in one of his pockets for this purpose, and wrapped it around the book that held his precious writing before walking over to the trap door on the rooftop of the old building. He’d been hiding his journal here for years, tying it to a string that he kept in the exhaust vent that led into the building. As far he knew, no one had ever stumbled across it.
For Kris, the only safe places for this journal were either here or on his person. To keep his writing safe from ridicule or destruction, Kris made a point to hide it every time he and the boys were going to do a job — just in case.
He backtracked and made his way toward the small diner down the street. He was at a “no walking” sign when he heard hollering from behind him.
“Stop him! Freeze, and get your hands where I can see them!”
Startled, Kris turned to see a cop coming right at him, his frown focused as he ran holding onto his nightstick. He seemed to be looking directly at Kris.
Instinctively, Kris tensed up, ready to turn and bolt if the pig came any closer. He took several steps to the right to get out of the cop’s line of fire in case he chose to fire his weapon.
“Freeze! You’re under arrest, boy!”
That was when Kris noticed the young teen moving for all he was worth about fifty feet away. The boy looked terrified as he ran from the law with the stolen purse visible under his arm as he fled. Kris was debating whether or not he should distract the cop so the kid could get away when the boy passed him and ran right out onto the street in a panic.
Screeching tires nearly drowned out the blare of car horns. Bam!
No! Kris screamed silently, whipping around to see the aftermath of the loud, dull thud. A crumpled figure lay in the street where it had bounced off the hood of a minivan that hadn’t been able to stop on time. The dented van’s horn still blared. The gory scene before him turned his stomach, and as every other person who was around gathered to see the horrific accident, Kris backed away with seething anger.
The fucking cops never thought about what the hell they were doing as they ran around catching bad guys any way they could to get a promotion. He turned to see the young police officer pushing through the crowd with a resolute expression on his face and not one ounce of sympathy showing.
“Ain’t you happy now, you fucking pig?” Kris demanded, shaking with rage as he stupidly confronted the cop. “You fucking just killed an innocent kid!” He swung at the police officer.
“Back off, street trash!” the cop snarled, but Kris had already swung for his second time.
Not surprisingly, the crowd around them made no attempt to aid the officer, so Kris got in a few more punches before the man was able to reach for his handgun. Panting now, the cop tore his weapon from its holster and trained it on Kris.
“One move,” he insisted, waving the gun in Kris’ direction while at the same time yanking out his handcuffs, “one move and I’ll have no choice, sir. Now get down on the ground with your hands above your head. I’m placing you under arrest for assaulting an officer of the law.”
Kris glared at him in defiance, contemplating his chances of escape. Slim, he knew, but this latest impulsive stunt was going to cost him dearly.
I don’t fucking wanna go back to prison.
So why, instead of walking away like he usually managed to do, did he just give a cop a black eye?
“Now, punk!” the policeman growled as his gun hand twitched. “Get on the fucking ground with your hands on your head!”
Deciding his flight option was dysfunctional at best, Kris slumped in defeat and sank to his knees.
“Welcome everyone, and thank you all for attending this year’s Toronto Amateur Gallery Contest award ceremony for best amateur photographer! This contest is recognized in Canada for its broad selection, with entries coming from every province and from amateur photographers of all ages and walks of life. It’s also recognized for being the longest-running photo competition in the country, and tonight I’m going to give out an award to the top three contestants. The awards are for best picture and for creatively bringing their subjects to life. First prize in this contest is sought after by anyone wanting to become something in the world of photography. So coming first in such an event truly signals recognition of significant talent.”
Drew Matheson felt her sister squeeze her hand with eager anticipation. Glancing to her right, Drew thought Melanie seemed more excited than she, and Drew had to stifle a laugh from seeing the animated look on her sister’s face. Drew pressed her finger to her lips in a quiet reminder that patience was the key to important events such as this.
Unfortunately, patience was a virtue Melanie Matheson hadn’t ever found the time to perfect.
“Is this guy going to ramble on all night long, or what?” she grumbled under her breath. “We’ve been here for a half hour already, and the winners haven’t been announced yet. I think I’m gonna need another drink.”
Drew smiled as she leaned into her sister and shushed her into silence, “Mel, calm down. You act like it’s your award show, not mine.”
“How can you stand it?” her best friend Courtney Cairns whispered on the opposite side of her. Her auburn curls shimmered down her back as she shook her head. “The suspense, I mean? You already know you’ve won, so sitting here waiting must be killing you.”
Drew started to laugh, but the dirty looks she received from people around her at other tables made her choke it back. She smothered her grin. “I’d say it’s killing you two. I don’t know for certain that I’ve won, or even if I’ve placed at all, so that’s why I’m listening so intently.” She paused and then continued, “You guys didn’t have to come with me, you know. It’s not your fault Mom couldn’t make it.”
“Don’t be absurd, baby girl,” Melanie replied, exasperated. “Like we’d let you come all the way to Toronto without company.”
“Correction: like we’d pass up an opportunity for a road trip and to party at new clubs,” Courtney replied, winking across at Melanie.
Drew rolled her eyes in feigned annoyance, tuning them both out. She sipped her glass of champagne, feeling both content at her chance to be part of such a great event, and a pinch anxious at the thought of actually placing first.
Even if she didn’t, she had to congratulate herself on coming this far so young. This fully validated the many years she’d dedicated to her photography. Losing wouldn’t be the end-all of her dreams. No, in fact it would serve as the complete opposite by giving her more ambition to succeed.
She vowed to one day make her father proud.
“As was mentioned in the brochure, the winners will each receive a reward. Third place is $100.00, second is $250.00, and first place is $500.00. All three winners also get the opportunity to promote their work in our gallery for the next year.” The host cleared his throat. “Without further ado, I’m pleased to call on Ms. Angela Cudmore to present the winners.”
The crowd clapped as the man left the stage. Melanie and Courtney cheered loudly, embarrassing the hell out of Drew. She held her breath as the woman called out the second and third contest winners. They both went up on stage to receive their award and cheque, and to say their thanks.
“This next contestant has been taking pictures since she got her first camera at the age of fourteen. Since then, she’s had a one-track mind full of passion and determination to come out on top with her work,” Angela told the audience. “Tonight, at the still young age of twenty, all her hard work is paying off. The annual Toronto Amateur Gallery Contest is pleased to announce this year’s winner: Marley Drew Matheson!”
Drew gasped, stunned.
Melanie rolled her eyes. “Well? Get on up there, girl, and do your thing.”
“Good luck,” Courtney added.
Swigging back the remainder of her champagne, Drew stood up on shaky legs and made her way to the stage as she tried to ignore the clapping from the crowd and the supportive cheers from her obnoxious fans in the back. Up on stage, she shook the hands of supporters and guest speakers before receiving her award. Taking a deep breath, she stood behind the podium and looked down at the several tables full of people.
She smiled nervously, lowering her head to speak into the microphone. “I’d like to thank the judging panel for believing my work was worthy enough for a winning place in this contest. I’d also like to thank my family and friends for their support, and for the never-ending supply of batteries for my camera.” The crowd laughed, and it eased some of her tension. She took a deep breath, whispering the truth, “Most of all, though, I’d like to thank my dad for believing in me all those years ago, for believing I had the gift to behold and capture even the simplest of beauty behind my lens and do it proper justice. Thank you,” she repeated, nodding in appreciation before returning to her seat.
The tight fit of the pantsuit she wore made her uncomfortable with everyone’s eyes on her as she walked down the aisle, but she covered her awkwardness with a confident smile. Once seated, she sifted her fingers absently through her long golden locks of hair. Her stomach was still full of butterflies as she stared blankly at the glass before her.
“You okay?” Courtney asked her quietly from her left.
“Hmm?” she replied, meeting Courtney’s eyes. She pasted on a chipper smile, even though she felt like crying and replied, “Of course. How did I do?”
“Wonderful, duh. I knew you’d win,” Melanie cut in, giving her a knowing look. Sadness equal to Drew’s own showed in the green depths of her sister’s eyes. To break the moment, Melanie took another drink of her rum and coke.
The ceremony continued for another hour or so. When it ended, the gals headed out to Drew’s modified two-door 2000 Honda Civic, which was Drew’s pride and joy and her second favourite hobby. The hot pink Civic with black bottom trim had black leather bucket seats and a gear stick to match the pink exterior.
Tinkering with cars was one of the interests she’d shared with her father. He had helped her to install a race scoop, a black wing on the back, and the best set of rims she’d ever come across three years ago. And then Andrew Matheson had died. Though her car was still her baby and she loved going fast, she could never bring herself to continue making it race worthy without her father there. She’d had every intention of buying a better engine and the whole works, but without her father helping it just wasn’t the same.
“So, now that it’s eleven thirty, and we’re in a different province, and we’ve got ourselves a fancy hotel that Courtney’s paying for, which club are we heading to?”
Drew shrugged, unlocking her doors and sliding into the driver’s seat. “I’m actually beat, guys. I was thinking of just heading back to the hotel and having a hot bath or a swim.”
Melanie snorted. “Okaay. You’re gonna ditch us, as usual. Whatever, Courtney and I will have plenty of fun without you.”
“I’m not ditching you on purpose. It’s been a long day, with a lot of driving.” But despite her protest, she knew full well she was ditching them. Since she no longer drank more than one alcoholic beverage an evening — two at most — tagging along with them while they got drunk wasn’t her idea of a good time. Not to mention all that other trouble they usually got themselves into when they partied. She wanted to have a good time, not be a babysitter.
“If I remember right, both of us offered to take turns driving,” Courtney mentioned from her seat in the back.
Drew chuckled at that remark. The very idea! As she pulled out onto the street, Drew said, “Please, like I’d ever let either of you drive my car. Melanie’s rear-ended so many people since she got her license she’s about to get it taken away. And you, you’re just scary behind the wheel.”
“Not all of us have the interests of a man,” Melanie replied, her nose raised in a would-be dignified, haughty manner.
Drew laughed harder, not at all offended. “Sucks to be you then. Now, where am I taking you ladies tonight? I plan to be fast asleep when the clubs shut down, so I hope you’re taking a cab back to the hotel.”
She pushed herself off the pool wall, her body sliding lithe and graceful through the cool depths of the water. Back and forth, back and forth, along the length of the pool she swam with long strokes of her arms and her legs pumping. Swimming relaxed her like nothing else could. As her Gram used to joke, she should have been born as a mermaid. Not that she wanted to become the next best Olympian swimmer or what have you, but it was a great way to spend her downtime. And whenever she was upset, she found herself either in a pool, or doing yoga.
And she was upset now.
She hadn’t realized before how much significance she had attached to winning a photography award. Her promise to do so for her father had been a constant motivator in her life since he’d died. Now that she had accomplished this life’s dream, she’d expected to be jumping for joy.
No weight had lifted from her shoulders.
If anything, coming face to face with the realization that yes, she’d reached her goal but Daddy hadn’t been sitting with her when she won made the fact of his death as freshly painful as it would be if the accident had happened yesterday. He really wasn’t ever coming back to help her through life. If she were honest with herself, she’d expected that capturing her dreams would bring him closer to her again. She still wasn’t prepared to let him go.
She hadn’t been two years ago, either.
Flipping over to lie on her back in the water, she switched from breaststroke to backstroke without missing a beat. She had no form preference, using whatever pushed her closer to exhaustion.
An hour of swimming laps brought her to that point. She got out of the pool and reached for her towel. Wrapping it around her bikini, she grabbed a second one and wound it around her long, braided hair. Thankful that her hotel room overlooked the pool area and ignoring her guilt that she technically wasn’t even supposed to be in the pool after eleven p.m., she walked up the stairs to the sliding doors that led to her room. Locking them after her and drawing the curtains closed, she sighed in subdued content.
Hoping Courtney and Melanie stayed safe that night, she rinsed off in the shower and took two sleeping pills before heading to bed.