“Are you a pirate?” “What?” Thomas couldn't believe his ears.
The icing of night melted under the insistent tongue of the rising sun, turning the dark purple into lavenders, pinks, and yellows. The hungry light, not satisfied with its tasting, continued to devour the darkness chasing shadows between the buildings and bouncing off the glass scales that covered their aging forms.
As the light hit Thomas's window, it diffused, unable to fully penetrate the thick coating of dirt and exhaust fumes that had built up over the years. Although the brilliance had been muted to a soft glow, it was enough.
Thomas groaned, sensing the light. He opened his good eye, seeing the peeling mottled paint on the ceiling. Shit! I'm still here. He reached into a pile of clothes lying next to the mattress that served as his bed and searched until he encountered the cool, smooth feel of glass. He held it up, noting the remnants of amber fluid in the bottom. Through the glass, he saw a cockroach scurry from a shadow and disappear into a crack where the plaster had eroded. "Cheers!" he saluted, tipping the bottle and draining it.
The sharp burn of alcohol cut into his throat and he began coughing. He sat up, rolling to the side. The spasm passed and he swung his legs – leg – he corrected himself – over the side of the mattress. He strapped on his prosthetic limb and, using the wall as a crutch, pulled himself unsteadily to his feet.
He felt a hot flush run through him. "Damn cheap booze," he mumbled although he knew it wasn't the alcohol. It was anger. Anger that he felt sorry for himself, anger that he was useless, anger that his life had been torn apart by an IED in Afghanistan and, right now, anger that the bathroom was so far away. He wobbled precariously across the room and relieved himself.
Finished, he pulled himself to the sink and splashed water on his face. Looking at the cracked mirror, he saw the remnants of the 24 year old Lance Corporal Thomas McCarthy hiding behind an unkempt beard. The beard hid most of the scarring except the vacant socket of his left eye. He picked up the eye patch hanging from the nail next to the sink and adjusted it over the hole. "That's as pretty as you're going to get," he said mockingly as his depression drained away some of the anger.
"Well, let's see what's on our busy social calendar for today. Come to think of it, let's see if we can guess what today is," he laughed mirthlessly. He thumped over to a small table and chair and lowered himself into it.
"Hey, keep it down," a muffled voice came through the wall.
"Ah, meet the asshole neighbors." He looked at the calendar with his scratchings on it. "Nope, not on the list. Probably for the best." He saw there was a meeting of the local Wounded Warriors group at noon. "Sandwiches and sympathy. Bologna and cheese ... and more bologna."
He'd been to a few of their meetings. He'd listened to talk about getting on with life and he'd even talked to the counselors. It didn't really help. He couldn't reconcile the person he had been – still was - inside with this broken shell he inhabited. He felt the anger rise again and took several deep breaths, letting it pass. Still, it's a free meal, he thought but avoided further commitment.
He pulled on a pair of worn jeans, slipped into a tattered O.D. tee shirt with U.S.M.C. stenciled on the front and put a scruffy pair of sneakers on. Leaving the flat, he locked the three dead-bolts and began the arduous climb down the three flights of stairs to the street. He didn't notice the rancid smell of too much humanity in too small a space until he opened the front door of the building and stepped out onto the small porch.
A breeze, tainted with the smell of fish, wafted off the East River. Good morning, ladies jumped into his head, a reference to an old joke, and he felt a small smile play along his lips. He surveyed the street and noted all the traffic. "Another beautiful day in the neighborhood."
The voice startled him. He focused and saw a small boy sitting on the steps leading to the stoop. He guessed the kid was ten or so. Ignoring him, he began to navigate the stairs.
"Hey, mister!" The voice was more insistent. Thomas stopped and turned. "You need something, kid?"
"Are you a pirate?"
"What?" Thomas couldn't believe his ears.
"Are you a pirate?"
Thomas stared at the boy. Are you kidding me? What sort of question ... He saw the boy's open face, heard the note of sincerity in the question, and stopped. The initial angry response died and he finally said, "Why would you ask me that?"
The boy held up a worn and tattered book. Thomas looked at the faded title: Treasure Island. "My dad used to read me this all the time. You look a lot like the picture of Long John Silver." He hesitated. "Well, 'cept you don't have no parrot," he finished and smiled.
Thomas wasn't sure whether it was the kid's earnestness or the absurdity of the conversation but he slumped to the stairs and began laughing. After a minute, he caught his breath. "No parrot, huh? Well, you've got me there. What's your name kid?"
"Why aren't you in school, Jessie?"
The boy stared at him as though he was crazy. "It's summer vacation. There is no school."
Thomas shook his head. "Sorry. Haven't been keeping track of the time."
"That's O.K. You probably don't go to school anymore."
"No. Not anymore. So, you said your dad used to read to you. Doesn't he do that now?"
"No. He was killed." Jessie said it matter-of-factly, like he was reciting something he had learned but never experienced or, at the least, never allowed himself to accept it.
It occurred to Thomas that they both had that in common. "I'm sorry, Jessie." They both sat staring quietly into the street. "You know what?"
Jessie gave him an questioning look.
"I haven't read that story in a long time. How about if we read it together?"
The smile on Jessie's face was answer enough. He handed the book to Thomas.
Thomas opened to the first page. "Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end ..."
At the end of Chapter 5, Thomas closed the book. "That seems like a good spot to stop ... for today," he added as he saw Jessie's objection forming. "How about tomorrow morning? We can pick up with The Captain's Papers.."
"Really? You promise?"
Thomas considered for a moment. "You know Jessie, I've made a lot of promises and I haven't kept them all. But, I'll make you a pirate's pledge. I'll be here."
Jessie took the book back and offered another toothy smile. "Aye, Aye!"
Thomas pulled himself up and began limping down the street. When he got to the corner he stopped. Walsh's Liquor Store was diagonally across the intersection. He considered a moment but instead, turned right and headed for the store front that housed the Wounded Warriors. Free lunch, it is! Even pirates have to eat, he chuckled to himself.
As he entered the cool interior, he saw a small gathering near the table that had been set up. He joined in the line and picked up a paper plate.
He turned and saw the V.A. counselor – Bill Jenkins – approaching. "Hi Bill. How's it going?" he greeted the small, portly man.
"That's supposed to be my question," Bill rejoined, a smile spreading across his face.
Thomas considered for a moment. "Better, I think."
"I noticed you haven't been here in a while. I was getting worried. I've got some free time if you'd like to catch up after the meeting."
Thomas began to say no, and then thought better of it. "Sure. I checked my social calendar this morning and my afternoon's free."
Bill laughed and said, "Well, you seem in better spirits."
"Yeah, some of the puzzle pieces seem to be starting to fit together. Just one big piece missing now."
Bill frowned. "What's that?"
Thomas began chuckling. "Know where I can get a parrot?"
Bill let out a burst of laughter. "Okay. I've got nothing. We really do need to talk, after that."
Thomas continued to chuckle and turned, heading into the meeting.
An entry for "Invalid Item"
Word Count: 1,440