He remembered that moment so well he feared he would never forget it; that its ghost would haunt him in his dreams, its invisible spectre visit him in its waking hours. He knew that so many thousands in the world had been here, in this moment, before, had heard the same words, had felt the same rushing sensation of fear and guilt and shame and that echoing, terrifying numbness that spread like burning ice through every pore of the body, but it was different, here and now, at this moment and time; it was happening to him.
And then that dreadful, silent pause as everyone stared, and the boss, with one last, furious look, had stormed back to his office, the fury of his rage still present in the wake he left behind, an angry snake that no one dared offend. And then – and this was what he would hate, would avert his eyes to, would spend the rest of his life trying to ignore, all the bitter hurt and pain of the moment wounding him as no other wound, scarring him as no other scar – slowly the janitor began to swipe his mop across the floor, and conversations resumed, and people went back to work, as if nothing had happened, as if the world had not just ended, as if the future had not just suddenly lost its dull tediousness and had become a minefield, a bombing ground, where every step was uncertain and the consequences grim. He had heard the buzz of conversation resume, and he knew then that he could not stand it.
Four years. Four years he had worked there, had spent his hours, had laughed and joked with friends he knew were only colleagues, had lived there, as much as it was possible to live without any semblance of a life; yet now he was being abandoned, being sent away to fend on his own, as if he had never really mattered, as if it had all just been a game, and not his life on the line. He was hurt and he felt betrayed; he wanted to slash at the walls, scream and rage and shout, make hell and havoc manifest and everyone else feel just one bit of his agony, one iota of his resentment, one drop of the acidic tears he was shedding slowly inside, but he knew he could not – he was much too calm, too quiet, too much of a loser to ever give vent to the violence that bubbled and frothed and simmered inside – and quickly he packed his box and left that hateful room.
All the misery of the world seemed to settle on him as he walked down the long hallway to the elevator, as he rode down to the lobby, as he left the great glass doors of the building behind. He was thirty-one years old, with nothing creditable to his name. He had never had a girlfriend. He had no friends. He was fat. He was balding. He was a failure, who had managed to survive only thus far through luck and bumbling serendipity. He was not smart. He was a nonentity of no significance, as remarkable as the next man in the crowd, as worth remembering as the sunsets that people never saw, the ordinary, everyday things of no consequence and no effort. No ambition, no desire, no nothing; just one more of the tens of thousands of millions of humans who populated the Earth.
It was not surprising that he should be fired, or have never had a girlfriend, or never been subject to the passion and frenzy that seized every great man by the shoulders and thrust them into fame and power and status. All his life he had gone through the rituals, the trials, the tribulations as was expected. At school, he was never extraordinary. At college, he was only average. He was not the best, or the brightest, or even the worst or the least academically inclined; even that would have been too much of a distinction for him. He was just in the middle, always in the middle.
With a sigh, he turned left around the coroner.
There was his home, a miserable wreck of an apartment whose interior bore no displays, no sign of human habitation, save a bed and a desk and a few utensils. He felt disgust swell in him, contempt for himself and the miserable human that he was – and despair overwhelmed him, and he sat down on the steps of the staircase, and he sobbed. He wept. He wailed. He could not help it; he cried, and let the tears bleed down his face, warm and salty, though no one would care, he thought with a fragile intensity –
“Why are you sad?”
He looked up, the tears still wet on his face, eyes red and scrunched together. A three-year-old stood in front of him, a basketball in his hands, looking quizzically at his sodden face.
“Who are you?” he asked, rude and rough, though part of him knew even the demons of sadness were no reason to talk like that to a three-year-old – he squashed that part deep down in his mind.
But the child was unperturbed. He continued to look at him curiously, as if he had never heard the question, and repeated:
“Why are you sad?”
He gazed back into those tiny brown eyes, full and innocent and childlike, under the weight of the slight frown on his brow, waiting only for an answer.
“I lost my job.”
He said it brutally, simply, without pretence, without ambiguity. Well? If the child wanted an answer, he would give it to him. Why disguise the truth in pretty lies? One day he too would feel like this, and there was no point in hiding the future from those who would live it.
The three-year-old shrugged.
“So get it back.”
He forced a laugh through his lips, though it felt bitter and hollow.
“It’s not that simple,” he tried to smile.
For a moment, the three-year-old continued to wear his look of slight perplexity. Then he sat down, on the ball, on the sidewalk, and stared, with his head cocked to the side, into his eyes.
“Well,” he began, and suddenly it was pouring out of him, all his resentment, all his hurt, how Reggie Stones would corner him after school and leave him bruised and bloody on the pavement, how he had no life, no friends, nothing. How it felt to bleed inside with all the pain of rejection and the scalding welts of indifference, how he knew he was not meant for the good life, the easy life, the ordinary life, how his mother and father had died as soon as he graduated from college, how he had just lost the only reason to ever step out of his home - it came flooding out of him, in a sea and tide of memory on the waves of disappointment, and contemptuous misery.
And all the while, the child just kept listening, his head cocked to the side, his brow furrowed as all the woes and hurts of an overgrown child struck their plaintive tone on his ears, as if thinking through some vast and deeply complex problem. He never moved all the time the story was told, made no movement as he paused to draw one ragged breath after another, was silent all the while he spoke himself hoarse, and only when he finished did he speak again, in a vexed and puzzled voice:
“I still don’t get it. Why are you sad?”
He stared, hoarse and exhausted, his breathing heavy and laboured, as if he had just run a marathon and two, incredulous and disappointed.
But the child was not done.
“The way I see it, you should be happy. You’re free, mister. You’re better off than most people. At least you’ve got the birds, and the sun, and the sunset to watch out for. At least you can do what you want to, than what you have to. Mom and Dad work all day long, and when they come back home, they’ve got no time to sleep, they’re up all night, just working, and working, and working. You can listen to music as loud as you like, you can go anywhere you want to, you can watch TV as long as you want. Mister, you’re free. You can do anything you want. You can change your life completely, right now if you want to, and nobody’s going to stop you, ‘cept yourself, and I can tell you ain’t going to.”
“When I was a baby, Mom and Dad used to take me everywhere they went. They used to fly around a lot, and they showed me lots of things. They told me they showed me the sunset the way it’s seen in Japan, the sea and the beach in California, the big buildings in Hong Kong. But, mister, I don’t remember any of that stuff. Every year I tell them I want to go again, they make it sound so exciting, but they tell me I’ve already seen it once; I don’t have to see it again. Mister, I’d love to be like you right now. You’ve got all the time to do what you want. You’ve got everything you need, and I’ll be your friend if you’re sad about not having any. Heck, you could probably get yourself another job if you tried, if it’s important to you. So why are you sad, mister? There’s nothing to be sad about.”
He stopped, and stuck out a hand.
The tears had dried now, and he was staring, staring at this child who had just repainted his world with colours that were no less than the searing hues of yellow, the streaks of wild, vicious red, of gleaming, glorious blue, of white and green and violet and indigo, and all the others. What did it matter if he didn’t have a job? He could always get another one; hell, he could even start his own business if he wanted. What did it matter if he was a failure? He didn’t have to be. What did it matter if he was a miserable, pathetic being? He didn’t need to be; heck, he could change everything that was wrong in his life if he wanted to, right at this very moment. He could do anything. He was king. He was God. He was free.
What did it matter if he had never had a friend? He had one now.
And he reached out, and took the small hand.
“Friends, kid. Friends.”