DEATH HAS ITS OWN CLOCK
Paul stares at his reflection. This is the eighth…maybe tenth…he has lost count how many times he has tried to knot his stupid tie! Sighing, he looks to the ceiling of his bedroom for help. His family is already at the church, but he needs some alone time before heading over there. It's only a few blocks away.
The death of his older brother, Shawn, was sudden and Paul hadn't been himself. Questions rolled around in his head night and day – still do. The police had found his body the next town over under an overpass. Nobody was around and when they had examined the scene, there were no signs of foul play. To them, it was a cut and dry case of an overdose.
NO! The last time Shawn used drugs was back when their parents died. He had spiraled with grief; however, he had turned around after endangering ten-year-old Paul by buying some dope from a gun-carrying lowlife. He will always remember that big grotesque tattoo of a snake twisting around the seller's arm and to make matters worse, when the man turned, Shawn's money in hand, Paul caught sight of a small bird trapped in its embrace.
When his aunt found out, she slapped Shawn hard and asked him, "Do you care about your little brother? Do you want him to end up a drug addict like you?" From where Paul was on the stairs, clearly not asleep, he could see Shawn's chin touched his own chest. Paul didn't get to hear the rest of the conversation because his aunt locked eyes on his sending him scampering back to bed. Regardless, it was something that caused enough of an impact that resulted in getting himself checked into a rehab. Afterward, Paul could see the brother he adored growing up. Nothing since then had stopped them from being each other's rock.
Paul didn't care that there was a used needle inches away from Shawn's body. He didn't care that one of his former dealers told the police that his older brother had been around a few hours before wanting a score. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Shawn would never turn back there! There had to be another explanation and he wasn't going to stop trying to figure out who killed his brother.
For the last time, he forces his fingers to remember the twists and turns that his hero showed him so long ago. His mind runs through the memories he had with Shawn; the time when he had picked up Paul from kindergarten and they jumped into every puddle on the way home is one of his favorites. A small tear runs down and he lets it slide down all the way to his lap. He has no idea how he will go on – if he can go on. One last look in the mirror tells him that his tie looks decent, so he heads out into the night towards the church.
He hasn't even gotten halfway there when panicked screams cause him to pause. It's minutes later before he sees a tall girl sprinting down the other side of the same street. At first, all Paul can do is stare in awe at the pace the girl is keeping, but soon realizes there is something seriously wrong. Every couple of seconds, her head whips behind her. His eyes shift down dark, narrow Jensen Street to see who her pursuer is. The girl is keeping a steady rhythm; her French braid bouncing with each step. Soon he realizes she has no idea what is waiting for her at the end. First, this is a non-residential street; the houses are abandoned for good reason. Second, the city planners apparently have a morbid sense of humor, for there is no "end of the street" only deep cold water.
The young man quickly glances at his watch. He figures he has time to see if he can prevent something. So, he swivels his chair and pushes the wheels around as hard as he can towards her. When he reaches the edge of the last building, however, the girl has become one with the darkness. He spins around like a basketball on someone's finger to see 360 degrees, but his eyes and heart tell him she's gone. He's too late. Silently, he hopes she made it to somewhere safe.
If he doesn't get a move on, he'll be late, his inner voice urges. Just before he gets back to the main road, a push jerks him almost sideways. He opens his mouth to shout at his assailant, but a small hand squeezes his jaw shut. When he realizes who it is, his jaw relaxes. He tries to gently pull her hands from his mouth, but the tall girl refuses. Instead, he raises his eyebrows in question. She tilts her head toward a dank alley. Inwardly, he shudders but outwardly nods.
After they are well-hidden from the abandoned street, she uncovers his mouth. The girl turns towards him and says something incoherent. He starts to wave his hands to get her attention, but she's too busy looking at the entrance to the alley, probably to make sure that the assailant hasn't found her. Finally, he grabs her arm abruptly and she turns in surprise. Her soft brown eyes express so much fear, at first, he's afraid to say anything. He finally lets go and tries to speak.
"I'm deaf. I can only understand you if you face me."
The girl steps back in shock. Several times, she opens her mouth then closes it. Finally, she says, "I'm sorry."
He shakes his head and says, "There's nothing to be sorry about."
Again, she is left speechless. To his surprise, she starts to sign. Man. Chase. Me.
Only half smiling, he nods. Bad.
She then replies haltingly, "My name C-a-n-d-a-c-e."
"My name is P-a-u-l," he signs fluently. "Where did you learn to sign?"
Candace thinks for a bit before raising her hands, "Not sure sign d-e-t-r-o-i-t."
Paul shows her and she grins, repeating it. "Thank you."
A shadow to Paul's left shattered the tender teacher-student moment. Quickly, he pushes her behind a wet dumpster. He puts a finger to her lips. Then casually rolls his wheelchair towards where he had last seen the dark shape. Even though he can't hear himself whistle, it calms him so he starts to purse his lips. Whether it's on key or not, someone else will have to say something.
Just as he is about to turn around and tell Candace it's safe, pain etches itself across his neck. Paul's muscles scream, but before the aggressor can strike again with what looks like an old piece of wood, Paul's karate training comes flooding back.
He had been bullied ever since he could remember. Between being deaf and living in a wheelchair, kids had a plethora of excuses to make fun of him. They constantly yelled at him expecting him to understand. They pushed him down hallways and played with his brakes. One time a big surly boy in the eighth grade decided to treat him like the 'bottle' in the game Spin the Bottle. After the incident his sophomore year where one of his classmates put him in a chokehold while in the bathroom, his college-age brother Shawn, signed him up for karate. At first, it was difficult, but the instructor helped him outside of class so he could do the moves with the rest of the students. Paul remembers how excited he was when he learned how to use his own wheelchair as a weapon. He even practiced with Shawn when they were together on school breaks. Today, Paul proudly holds a red belt; only two away from black.
Smiling, he makes a mental note to thank his brother as he launches into attack mode. His assailant has a mask on, but he can see the wiry grayish brown hair under the soft glow of the moon. The man surprises Paul with a swift kick towards the chest; however, he sees it a fraction of a second before impact. Paul makes a perfect counter move forcing one wheel on the man's knee whose eyes widen, gritting his teeth. Paul grins, then releases his brakes and runs over his toes back and forth several times. The enemy seems to fall back towards the building in fatigue, but it was only a ruse for within two seconds the man is back on his feet, anger fuming. Clearly, the man doesn't care that he's fighting with a man in a wheelchair.
The glistening moon reflects off of something shiny in the man's hands as he advances forward. Paul's eyes grow bigger…it's a knife. Even though the stakes have risen exponentially, he refuses to back down, besides he knows that Candace is counting on him. There's no one else in this stinky alley that will help him; he must forge ahead. Slowly, the two of them circle each other like hungry beasts waiting for the perfect moment to attack their prey. The assailant lunges forward out of Paul's peripheral left-hand view, barely slicing his forearm. Immediately, Paul throws a right-handed punch into the man's knee, the same one he hit with his wheelchair earlier. Both parties are hurt but show no mercy for the other. Gasping for breath, the man holds his injured knee with one hand and with his other tries to pull Paul's neck into the crook of his arm. Knowing full well what the man intends to do, Paul ducks bashing his head into the man's stomach. If there were more light streaming down, he would have been able to see the dark red color slowly emerging on this assailant's cheeks, but all Paul can see is a thin-lipped, determined face.
Again, the man drives a fast and hard fist, the blade of the knife out but Paul catches it inches from his shoulder. A sly smile appears, which causes the man to look frightened for half a second. Slowly, Paul cracks the man's knuckles one by one. The knife drops. Paul quickly uses his two-wheeled weapon to push it down the closest drain. Furiously, the man jumps on top of Paul. It looks like the wheelchair's about to fall over, but his quick reflexes allow him to keep it upright. Around and around he spins his chair until the man flies off hitting the side of the brick building. Out of breath, Paul slowly steers himself to the still body.
As he is checking for vitals, one of the man's arms catches Paul's attention so he carefully reaches over to examine it. It's a tattoo of long snake coiled around some other animal. Puzzled, he pushes the arm over revealing a small bird. Where had he seen that before?
Paul suddenly feels a presence behind him. Ready to fight, he swivels around and comes face to face with Candace.
He signs, "You scared me!"
"Sorry," she replies sheepishly. She points to the man, "He's dead?"
Paul shakes his head, "Unconscious."
Candace looks at him confused. "I don't know that sign."
Thinking for a moment, Paul signs, "Not asleep but not dead."
"Oh, I see!" Candace then wipes her brow as if to say, "Whew!"
Paul nods, "Let's go."
Candace follows him to the main road. Paul knows he's probably late, how much so he decides Shawn will understand. After all, he has turned back death's clock tonight using the skills his older brother taught him. If he hadn't been there or if Shawn had never'Paul rids his mind of those depressing thoughts and focuses on Candace.
"So where were you headed before than man chased you?"
"The church down there."
Candace points and together they set off. Throughout the fifteen-minute walk, she asks him to show her different signs; brother, friend, church, home. Sometimes it takes her a bit before she can sign the word without stumbling over it. When forming her fingers to sign, brother, Paul took her hands manipulating them to form an L from the chin down. This helps them forget their near death experience and focus on something positive.
She slows down in front of a huge brick building with the words Cornerstone Baptist Church on a lighted sign on the front lawn. It took him a second to realize why the name looked familiar.
He swivels around to face her, "You're going in?"
She nods, cocking her head seeing his bewildered look, "Why?"
"My brother's funeral is here."
Her hands fly over her mouth in surprise. "You're Shawn's'"
Before Paul could ask if she could lower her hand, she remembers.
"You're Shawn's little brother?"
He nods, eager to find out how she knows him not caring that he would have to lipread most of this. Since the service is about to begin, quickly, she explains that they were in Narcotics Anonymous. Shawn became a mentor then a friend. Once, she had relapsed and Shawn found her passed out under a highway. He had brought her to a clinic nearby and stayed with her all night till she awoke.
Candace starts to shift her weight from one foot to the other while glancing around. Paul turns to see if her former attacker had followed them. She puts a hand on his shoulder and gives him a tight smile.
"The man that chased me, he works for my old dealer." She looks down at her hands ashamed.
Paul waves his hand in front of her face to get her attention. She looks up reluctantly.
"I'm glad I was there to help."
"I'm so sorry I got you involved!"
Paul waves his hand to dismiss the thought. "It's no problem."
"You're so much like Shawn. He would have been proud of you tonight." Candace says as tears start to fall.
He can feel his own tear ducts threaten to spill. Without another word, they enter the church to remember the man, brother and friend, who cared about them more than anyone else ever will.
Before the door completely closed, Paul backed his chair out to take a long look at the starry sky. "Thank you, Shawn, for everything. I won't ever let you down."