Life is But a Stream — Part 3
Buddy’s car raced along the highways towards the laundromat. Patches of unadulterated green grass spilled off the ends of highway bridges, only to be stopped by suburban sprawl. As Buddy drove off the highway, he passed by one of his favorite spots in Plano, a fenced-off patch of grass where small horses would often be grazing. There was something about the purity of that land and those horses, the way they stayed calm in the midst of the surrounding concrete jungle, that soothed Buddy. Today, when he passed by there were no horses, but instead a single sign, indicating that the land would be the site of the next Toll Brothers housing development. It was jarring.
As Buddy approached his destination, his mind alternated between frantically planning his next move and reeling from the shock of Shaira’s tattoo. On the one hand, he didn’t know what one millennial, with a potential drinking problem, could do against the injustice behind that laundry shop. On the other, he couldn’t understand why Shaira’d seen him for therapy for the past month and listened to his story of the child without saying anything. Was this whole “dog story” planned? Was his vision of Zeke even real? Did Shaira suspect that he knew? These questions raced through Buddy’s mind as he pulled up to the parking spot he had used earlier that day.
If he could get enough evidence, Buddy thought, maybe the police would believe him. His breaking and entering would have to be excused, right? The thought played through his mind a couple of times as he sat in his car, gripping the steering wheel until his palms started to sweat. He was terrified. There was no question about it. But he felt some impulse to act, if not for anyone else then for himself. He was simply fed up with the year of visions, doubt, and insecurity that had plagued him in the past year. Anything to make them stop. After all, the best things done for society often start with ourselves.
Buddy input the same code as before and walked into the back of the laundry room. The buttons on the code felt oddly slippery, moist from something, but Buddy assumed it was his own sweaty palms. As he stepped inside the dark room, he checked his phone. Plenty of battery. His plan was to confiscate the brand for evidence, take pictures of the entire place, and go straight to the cops. He opened up the secret passageway and tiptoed into the haunting hallway. It was now about 6 PM, and the buffet next door seemed to be opening up for dinner. He heard faint rustling behind the door labeled Kitchen and knew he had to be extra careful. He tiptoed towards the brands and took one out, being careful to separate it from the others and draw it out with care — all those Jenga games at bars were finally coming of use. He propped up his chosen brand against the wall and took out his phone to take pictures of the other brands. Once he had his photos, he picked up the brand again and walked toward the door with the symbols he didn’t know. He pressed his ear to the door to listen for any sound and heard something faint. It sounded like sobbing and whimpering. This was it, there had to be children inside that needed saving, so he was just going to… do what?
Buddy deliberated over whether to investigate or not. His right ear pressed to the door, he used his left hand to plug the other ear and prevent the disparate noises of the kitchen from distracting him. He closed his eyes, and rested the brand on the ground to steady himself. Time started to slow and his other senses kicked in. He felt the beads of sweat forming on the top of his forehead, the one constant of the Dallas summer. Discordant smells of Korean food wafted in from the kitchen, as he tightened his grip on the cold, hard metal of the brand. His breathing grew loud as his senses turned inward, and he focused his mind on the door beside him and visualized it. Any second now, Buddy thought to himself.
And then it worked. He had managed to focus himself on the object and enter a vision. He was standing in front of the door with the symbols, facing it directly. He saw a hand go out and touch the door knob, turning it to no avail. A voice cursed in Korean as the eyes of the vision looked up, probably uttering something angry, “Damnit where are the keys?!” The eyes looked back down at their hand and raised up to knock the door. Three times, a pause, two times, a pause, and then a loud bang with the whole fist. A moment later, a child opened the door in abject fear. The hand reached out to grab her face.
Buddy had seen enough. He managed to pull himself out of the vision with grace — the brand had helped steady him as it had earlier that day. He took a deep breath and knocked. Three times, a pause, two times, a pause, and then one slightly loud bang with his fist. He readied the brand in his hand, holding the bottom point face-up so he could threaten any adult that answered the door. When the door opened it was a girl looking up at him.
She seemed confused at first, unused to someone like Buddy coming to that door. But when she took a look at the brand in his hand, it was enough to put the fear back in her eyes. Her face seemed to hold a layer of dust, as if they hadn’t let her shower in days. She cowered away, worried at what he would do and looked down. She couldn’t have been more than 13. She grabbed the end of her raggedy lavender dress between her thumb and forefinger and started to shuffle away from the door slowly without turning her back to him. Buddy quickly followed her and closed the door behind him.
The first thing that hit him was the horrid smell. Buddy covered his nose with his free hand as his other kept the brand. A high-pitched whining sound was coming from around the corner in the room, as Buddy beheld the scene. Dim lighting accentuated the drab nature of a room with grey carpet and plain wallpaper, not unlike the decorations in the laundry room. Rugs were scattered haphazardly, covering most of the floor. They had layers of fine hairs and what seemed like urine stains in a few places. Zeke must be here, Buddy thought. He rushed forward and turned the corner in the windowless room. Sure enough, the dog was lying there on a pile of coarse rags. He seemed to be crying. Two children, who looked slightly younger than the first, surrounded the dog at a safe distance from his rags. They were trying to pet and cheer up Zeke but they stopped suddenly when Buddy rounded the corner.
There Buddy was, staring down the children and dog he’d only seen in visions before. A boy and two girls interrogated him through distraught eyes, searching for signs of hatred that would harm them. Zeke shifted his weight, seemingly injured in his right front leg, and stared directly into Buddy’s eyes as if begging. He felt numb all over at first. Then he felt a cold sweat starting at his forehead and running down to goosebumps near his hands — his hands that were still holding a brand with the point facing upward. He became aware that he looked like one of their kidnappers. He dropped it immediately on the soft rug, thankful that it didn’t make much of a noise. Still, the motion was enough to make the children jump in surprise and cause Zeke to bark. Buddy crouched immediately, raising his hands to his face and telling the dog to shush. The last thing he needed right now was for one of the restaurant workers to get suspicious.
He slowly made his way towards the dog, causing Zeke to whimper and lay down again. The children averted their eyes until they realized that Buddy was sitting down calmly beside Zeke. They stared at him in confusion as he stared back in guilt.
“Speak English?” Buddy asked.
The children looked at each other as if to confer on a single answer, and the girl who opened the door nodded her head, holding up two fingers to make the sign for little. “A little,” she said, in a thick accent.
“Bad men. Here? Now?”
“No. Go home.”
“I help you,” Buddy said slowly and deliberately. The children looked confused.
“I will get you,” he pointed to each of them, “out of here!” He pointed to the wall to insinuate escape.
The children looked at each other to confer again, as the lead girl started speaking in what sounded like Korean to Buddy. Their soft tones grew excited as they looked at each other with wide eyes and seemed to repeat the same word over and over again, growing louder each time. Buddy watched them as his consternation broke into a hapless smile. They can afford two minutes of celebration, he thought. He started to pet Zeke on the head gently, while telling the children to shush with a finger on his mouth. The children gathered around Zeke as well, and soon the dog was limping around with the children, eager to play. Buddy leaned back on his hands, observing the scene of abject happiness in front of him and wondering what had taken him so long to do his part. He took another look around the room and noticed a steady red light emitting from underneath a corner table. Concerned, he shuffled quickly over to the table and reached his hand underneath to pull out whatever was displaying the light. His hand brought out a baby monitor.
Just at that time, Zeke started to bark loudly as he played with the children, who had now begun to laugh along with him and were bordering on rambunctious. Buddy dropped the monitor and rushed over, screaming at a whisper: “STOP!” He put his finger to his hand again, hoping it was a universal sign to be quiet. The children understood but Zeke continued to bark until Buddy put a hand on his mouth firmly, scaring Zeke into a whimpering state again. He felt bad but couldn’t risk alerting whoever was on the other end of that baby monitor. For the longest minute of his life, Buddy and the children just stood there in the middle of the room, waiting for something to happen. At the end of it, Buddy signaled to the children to pick up their bags so they could leave.
He nervously kept glancing at the door as the children gathered their clothes from around the room and stuffed them in small bags. After a couple of minutes when the children seemed ready to leave, Buddy relaxed slightly and smiled at them, hoping to reassure them that this was really happening. He motioned with his head towards the door, and took a step that way when suddenly the lock on the door jiggled. Buddy absolutely froze. The jiggling on the lock gave way to an opening, and the opening of the lock gave way to an opening of the door, and the opening of the door gave way to a man. A well-built man in a cooking apron and jeans stood there holding a baby monitor in his hand and a look of incredulity on his face.
In the few seconds they spent simply staring at each other in fear and disbelief, several thoughts flew through Buddy’s head. He remembered the sound of his best friend’s laugh, the feeling of a hug from his mother, and the plume of red and blue dust in the moments before he received his power. He looked down and saw the brand that he had dropped earlier. One minuscule chance.
Buddy lunged down for the brand and shot up while throwing it at the man in the door. Since he didn’t have enough time he threw it underhand, which ended up being as ineffective as lobbing a ball at the man, who blocked it down with his sinewy forearms. To bring about Buddy’s worst fear, the man then pulled out a gun and pointed it at Buddy’s head. He leaned his head back and yelled something into the hallway while keeping his eyes on Buddy. He drew closer, one step at a time to discourage any sudden movement. His free hand met the other on the hilt of the gun. Buddy assumed this was a lower-level criminal, perhaps someone who’d never killed for the gang before. He tried to calculate out the actions he could take but as the menacing steel hole of the gun approached the space between his eyes, he didn’t hear the whimpering of Zeke or the children, or the sweaty breaths of the assailant before him.
He saw a memory of sitting in his father’s lap on a big-kid swing. A sea of wood chips below and open skies above, 2–3 clouds in each direction. The feeling of his father’s belly rolling with joy as they laughed together, soaring higher. Younger Buddy got scared, tightening his palms on his father’s thighs as the wood chips looked too far away. A strong, hairy arm enveloped him as his father kept laughing. They kept swinging. Buddy shouted “Daddy, we’re flying!”
The door slammed shut. Shifting his eyes from the gun barrel, Buddy saw the gang leader and recognized him with his heart as the man from the vision. The younger guy in front of Buddy explained something to the boss, who nods once. He took his shirt off to reveal a tattoo on his right shoulder, nearly identical to Shaira’s. He was shorter than Buddy would’ve imagined but stocky, and his arms had small scars along the biceps. He approached Buddy, pushing aside the gun, and muttered what they imagined would be the last thing Buddy hears. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
A punch landed on Buddy’s nose. Another. A blow to his stomach and Buddy was reeling, knees searching for the ground. He heard a clamor outside the door, people yelling and pots hitting the ground. A hand held him up by his hair and another punched him on the cheekbone. The liquid taste of iron throughout Buddy’s mouth. Red flecks sprayed with each new beating. He could still see in both eyes, though they were hazy. The boss cocked the gun and made sure it was loaded. He pointed it again at the space between Buddy’s eyes. He closed his eyes.
“Daddy, we’re flying!”
The impact wasn’t enough to send his body backwards. He wondered if it was a movie myth. He didn’t feel any different. Buddy opened his eyes. The boss laid on the ground, a bullet hole having ripped through his right wrist. His lackey was also on the ground, screaming and holding the bullet wound in his knee. Shaira stood above Buddy, her gun barrel still hot. She wore a vest over the tank top he’d seen at her place. Buddy’s eyes closed again and his body finally gave way.
He woke as water splashed over his nostrils and lips.
“Buddy, are you okay?” Shaira’s soothing voice.
“That was all real.”
“Yes. Buddy, you did it. You found these assholes. Look.” She pointed to the children, who were being given toys and fresh clothes by detectives in bulletproof vests. They smiled, and one of the boys had a dimple. He felt a relief he couldn’t quantify. Tears flew out of Buddy’s eyes and wouldn’t stop. Shaira sat down beside him and stroked his shoulder, whispering “you did good, you did good.” Zeke trotted over and licked the tears on Buddy’s face. The children hugged him and told him their names. He smiled through his tears. If only he had acted sooner, helped earlier, he said, but Shaira silenced him. Another detective patted him on the back and offered his card, saying there was a job for Buddy if he ever wanted it.
Once the arrests and formalities ended, Shaira offered to drive Buddy to the hospital for his wounds. It was oddly silent between them even when they parked outside the ER.
“Your tattoo,” Buddy blurted out. “Your tattoo.”
“They trafficked me years ago, before they had the idea for the brands.” Shaira introduced Buddy to what she’d been through as a survivor of the trafficking circles in Houston, how she’d escaped as a teenager, studied psychology in college, and joined the police. When she caught wind of investigations closing in on Dallas, she transferred from Houston and volunteered to go undercover, helping provide therapy to fellow cops in the meantime. She’d tried building a case for months, visiting suspicious stores and parlors that could’ve served as a front for the operation. She’d also identified women and men like Zeke’s owner who were suspected of funding the gangs while keeping their records clean and profiting from the trade. When Buddy was referred to her as a client by other cops, who’d worked with him on an earlier case, she knew she was close after their first session. She had tried to draw out details from his visions, while helping him cope.
“You kept me as a patient only because I had the vision of the child?” Buddy scratched his head, trying to keep up.
“I did what was slightly wrong to deal with something much worse.” Her eyes said sorry. “We can put a lot of these fucks behind bars with the confessions we get, including Zeke’s owner. And return those kids to their homes.”
Buddy looked at the dashboard of her car. “So, we no longer need to be counselor and patient?”
“If you’d like a different therapist, sure.”
“Well, maybe we could meet for dinner sometime.” He pulled at the stitching on her leather seat.
He looked up.
She kissed him on his cheek twice. “Go clean yourself up and I’ll think about it.” That wondrous smile of hers lifted his spirits. He bounded out the car and looked back as she turned her car to the police station to end a long night of vengeance she’d begun years ago in Houston.
Sitting on the ER bed, he thought of Shaira’s resilience. She’d rescued him in more ways than one. Beeps of different rhythms and volumes rang out around him as gunshot victims and others moaned. Again, he thought of the newspaper he’d thrown in the trash that morning, and his rendition of the children’s song in the shower. Life is but a stream. The memories of all of those surrounding him, his own experiences, they were unseen streams flowing throughout the world, and his visions gave him the boat and paddle to row them, to leave his own life and know others. He felt nothing he’d do would be as important as what he’d done to row the right streams and save those children. But maybe he could try to save others, like those surrounding him in the ER, from other crimes and kidnappings taking place in the city. And every once in a while, maybe he could use his powers to hunt a forgotten treasure or family heirloom. He’d need to buy some better champagne for dates with Shaira, after all.
Buddy rested his hand on the side rail of his hospital bed, ready to lay down and sleep. He jolted into a vision. He saw a man’s hand tied to the hospital bed. He was resisting but couldn’t budge. The bed was moving. People were wheeling it out of the hospital under cover of night, while nurses and doctors were taking a small break. The man in the bed was screaming for help, but his cries were muffled by duct tape across his mouth. He was taken to the trunk of a car, released from the bed bonds, and dumped into the trunk. But for one moment, his eyes centered on the license plate number.
Buddy shot out of the vision and checked his nose. No bleeding. He had his next case.
*Story drawn from unfortunately real-life events in Dallas, TX*