A Self-Aware Poem

I am,
as the cliche goes,
a mess of contradictions.
Conflicting depictions of self
fighting to emerge
(None with conviction.)

I am,
as the cliche goes,
unsure of who I am, really.
Never sure what thoughts are my own,
never certain of what I’m feeling.

These trite words are all I have.
None of which convey
the real sense, the real heart of the thing
This thing
This cliched struggle inside of me.

I feel too deeply.
I am too earnest.
Pretending that the rage, the love, the despair inside
isn’t the blasting furnace that it is
Hiding grand gestures behind small ones
Suppressing pain
Until it all festers, boils over, merges
And it all starts to feel the same:
Hopeless, and useless
and utterly inane.

Isn’t that how the story always goes?
To reveal too much is to risk rejection.
And when you (I) already feel so worthless
is it worth the risk?
Showing myself? Being proven right?
(Oh god, but what if I finally find connection?)
(Oh god, I am so tired of walking on eggshells.)

I feel too deeply.
I am too earnest.
Heart on my stupid sleeve.
Always struggling to please.
Always hoping to be seen.
Always hiding, hiding, hiding
because who could really love all the earnest, eager,
scarred and scared parts of me?

Bending over backwards.
Trying to be what people need.
Tiptoe, don’t impose, don’t suppose.
Be more, be better, be useful
You (I) don’t matter
I’m just here to fill a role.

More triteness that doesn’t make sense.
Taking up too much space, worthless words, weak rhymes.
A summary of all this stuff:
I am,
as the cliche goes,
always too much.
Yet I will never be enough.

The Return

Neither of us can remember when she started sleeping in my chambers, in my bed. Only that one night, a few months after I had freed her, she had slipped under the covers with nary a word, and curled up against my side. I remember that first night like a still photograph: Auburn hair spilling across the pillow, her bare leg over mine.

All we have done is sleep, with no compulsion for more. It’s comfortable. Comforting in its routine, despite the unusualness of her schedule; every night like clockwork Rhea comes, both our duties done for the day. She sleeps, wakes at 2am to draw or walk or get some air on the balcony, then comes to bed again. Sometimes I join her when she wakes. Sometimes we talk of what troubles us.

I have never questioned why she started to join my bed, and she has never explained. Neither of us has felt the need; it feels the most natural thing in the world. Even on hot nights, our combined body heat adding to the sweat on our skin, we lie pressed together.

It’s 2am. We’re both awake, this time, merely lying in bed. I’m savoring my last night with her, before having to leave for the Academy. Despite graduating years ago, most of us have been called back. An evil is coming; we’ve all felt it. And when the Academy headmaster’s sister turns up, long-presumed dead, claiming to have been buried in ice, we all know that the academy will be the center of it all. Again.

I’m showing her a picture from an older time, one of the few happy memories from the Academy, her chin tucked into my shoulder from behind. Then, with a suddenness that chills, she pulls away. I turn to follow, facing her as she lies on her back, staring at the ceiling.

“How long will you be gone?”

“I don’t know. There’s things we must learn, and relearn, if we’re going to be ready. Especially against an unseen force where we don’t know what to expect.”

Continue reading “The Return”

Choices, Choices

ripple
Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

I open the door, and I see the lake. All my lives ripple along the water.

What could have been. What could still be.

I do not know what to choose. I do not know how to make what I choose real.

Sometimes it’s just nice to look. To daydream, see what makes my heart sing most. (And ignore the voice that says, Anything, anywhere, but here.)

I am trying to listen to my instincts. I am trying to listen for the signs. Are there signs?

I am trying to manage. Between desire, between expectation, between the facts of reality, between the burden of responsibility.

All my lives ripple along the water and I don’t know how to choose. I don’t know that I have a choice. But the longer I stay, the longer and deeper I am rooted here, in the one life I know I do not want.

The stone is in my hand. I feel its weight. The smoothness, the flatness. I grip it tighter, take aim, take aim again, arm swaying from side to side, my body no better able to make a decision, commit to a path, than I am. It just gets heavier. The stone, my arm, my heart, everything.

I drop the stone. I walk back through the door, back to my life. I know one day I might no longer be able to open it, and the choice will have been made for me, then. So I walk through it a lot more often now.

But what is the point, if I don’t know how to choose?

Finding Catharsis

 

thunder storm
Photo by Florian Olivo on Unsplash

All is dark, except for the neon spider silk that streaks across the sky.

All is silent, except the roars that reverberate through the trees, through the earth. Through your bones, through your heartbeat.

Still you run.

The clouds burst and weep, soaking. Cleansing.

Almost there. Almost there. A little further.

You make it. The world spans out before you.

You see nothing. Then everything.

Hear only the rush of water. Then the blasts that nearly pierce your eardrums.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

Wait. There, the flash of lightning. The thunder that follows.

You scream, your voice joining the sky’s.

Again. Again. Again.

Your pain bursts and weeps, soaking. Cleansing.

Your joy reverberates through your bones, through your heartbeat.

Almost there. Almost there.

Almost purged. Almost free.

Between Worlds

By the time I come to, I’m already running. From what, or whom, I don’t know. all I know is that my heart is pounding, my mind is racing trying to catch up with whatever happened to require me to run, and This. isn’t. home.

The memories return in flashes, as they are known to do. Confusion, pain, passing out. And now I’m in a “here” that is like my own “here,” but not. A world parallel to the one I normally live in- same neighborhood, except not. Same sky, except not. I don’t know how I know, I just do.

I realize what I’m running from when the car screeches around the corner I just turned, long-haired teen with her head out the window, a gun pointed straight at me. Shit. I try (again, my memory reminds me) to explain that I am not a threat, that I don’t want to be here any more than she wants me to be, but she probably can’t hear me between the roar of the car engine and the shots fired from her weapon.

I dodge. Roll. Get up and find myself… elsewhere, again. What now?

This place, I don’t recognize. It’s even more oppressive than the first, feels wronger for me to be here. There are people running somewhere beyond the fence that leads into a theme park, yelling… calling out a name? Someone is missing. Given where I am, it’s most likely a child. Never good when a kid goes missing, especially somewhere as crowded and noisy as a theme park.

But hang on… Is that him? I wander closer to the bathroom shed, having caught a glimpse of a small figure slipping inside. There’s a giggle, which means either the child is playing a game in very poor taste, or I’m about to get supernaturally murdered. Which wouldn’t be good, considering I need to get back to my body and get the hell out of here.

“Excuse me,” a frantic voice calls out from behind me. “Have you seen my son?”

Relieved that I am spared a gruesome otherworldly death, I point towards the bathrooms. “I just saw a kid run in there. Was about to check it out when you showed up.”

The man runs past me and rushes in. I hear exclamations of relief, more giggles, stern rebuke. Disaster averted, I begin to walk away, trying to find some way out of this strange place.

“Thank you!” the man calls out. I turn. He has his son on his hip. They are, adorably, in matching pink shorts and white tees, the only difference being the father has no hat to cover his bald head.

I shrug. “No worries, I was just in the right place at the right time, is all.”

“You’re not from here, are you?”

“…No. How can you tell?”

“We always know. The same way you know you don’t belong.”

“How do I get out?”

“Keep walking. Your body will call for you; you’ll find yourself where you need to be.”

“Thank you.”

“Just be careful. There will be beings that do not want you to go back.”

I think back to the homicidal girl I’d just escaped, and smile grimly. “I think I’ve already met one. But I will keep that in mind, thanks.”

With a wave, they set off back towards the park, and I pick a random direction to start moving towards. The city looms out ahead of me, tall buildings and bright billboards, all of it looking and feeling inherently wrong to my senses.

A ripple. A shift. The city looking suddenly extremely close and then much farther away. And then I’m back.

Not home, not yet. But close enough. The same neighborhood where I know my apartment building stands in my world. It isn’t quite in the same place right now. I should be able to see it from where I am.

A gun cocks behind me. Shit. 


“No sudden moves.”

I slowly raise my arms. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”

“What are you doing here? What do you want?”

I hold up one finger. ”I woke up here.” A second finger. “And all I want is to get back to where I’m from.”

“So… You didn’t come here intentionally? You’re not here to profit?”

I laugh. “Profit? Profit off of what? I just got myself stabbed, and I’m lying in a coma somewhere on my planet, or ‘world,’ or whatever the term is. And I need to find my way back to my body so I can wake up.”

I hear the gun being put away. “You can turn around now.” When I turn, I see a little boy standing by the girl; he’s the same boy from the world I was just in. Huh. Interesting. Is there another me in this place too?

Raising an eyebrow, I ask, “Do you always bring little boys with you when terrorizing random people?”

“My brother is here to learn. We protect this place. It has the thinnest barrier between our world and yours, and plenty of people from your world have tried to take advantage. Create some sort of tourism business, as if the fabric could survive that.”

“I know nothing about that. I just want to get home. My body is in my bedroom, in my apartment, which in my world should be around here somewhere. But I can’t see it.”
“Tell me what it looks like. We know this place inside out. We’ll grant you safe passage. In exchange, you don’t come back.”

I reach out to shake the girl’s gloved hand. “Deal.”

Almost immediately after we’ve settled into her car, I hear growls from around us. “Um. What is that?”

“Shit.” She looks to her brother. “Don’t tell mom I said that.

“THAT is what we’re granting you safe passage from. There are things out there that don’t want people finding their way back. You’ve woken them up by coming here, and now they’re after you.”

“What do they want to do to me?”

“Whatever it takes to keep you from getting back to your body. We’re going to have to run. We’re sitting ducks in this car. They’ll tear through it instantly. But if we split up, they won’t know which one of us they’re looking for until – hopefully – it’s too late.”

Reaching forward, I grab one of the girl’s guns. “Guess I’ll be needing this then.”

With a nod, we shove the car doors open and sprint out in all directions. I can’t see anything yet, but I sure as hell can feel I’m being followed. Judging by the sounds that follow my new friends as they sprint off in separate directions, so are they.

The road gives way to dirt pretty quickly, and looking back I can see prints on the ground. Not human, of course. I try to run faster, and as I break out of an alley I almost cry in relief at the sight of my apartment building up ahead. Or at least, this world’s version of it.

The only problem is, whatever’s chasing me seems to have picked up on the fact that I’m the one its looking for, and is picking up speed. I’m going to have to fight the damn thing.

Pulling out the gun, I try to take aim at the space behind me and manage to fire a shot. I miss. Which only serves to piss the damn thing off, because now I can see it, humanoid, grey cracked skin, very sharp teeth growling right at me.

I take aim again, but nothing happens. The trigger is jammed, and I am screwed. As the demon thing bounds closer, I decide there’s only one thing for it. Bracing myself, I hold the pistol like a baton and beat the demon over the head as soon as it’s in range. While it’s still stunned, I stab the gun into its gut as far as it’ll go, which works surprisingly well.

The demon screeches, falls to the ground, and vaporizes like some cliche.

There’s a joke about knives and gunfights in this somewhere.

“You did it!” I turn to see the sister-brother duo running behind me. By the looks of the ash on their clothes, they killed off their pursuers too.

“Yeah! Your gun doesn’t work though. Please fix it.”

“Oh, no… You got Betty. She’s always jamming. I keep meaning to take her out of commission.”

“Doesn’t matter now.” I point to my building. “That’s home. I’m going to get going before more of those demons show up.”

I hand the girl her pistol back with a smile, and scruff the little boy’s hair. “It was really nice meeting you. Even if you were trying to kill me at first. I almost wish I could stay and get to know you guys better.”

With one last wave, and a sheepish goodbye from two (whose names I never learned, I’m realizing) I jog off towards home.

A ripple. A shift. The building looking suddenly extremely close and then much farther away. This had better be it.

And then I’m awake, stab wound and all. Clutching my side, I whisper out, “Thank God,” to the confusion of my nurse, and fall back asleep.

This time, I only dream.

The Exhale

April 9, 2020

I can almost imagine what it would feel like. The wood panels, dusty but strong, under my hands. The light, streaming in from wide windows. The rustle of leaves, the chatter of birds, the sounds of life equal parts isolating and welcoming.

To my mind, it would feel… like an exhale. A breath long held finally sighing out your lungs, the stagnant air dissipating in the breeze. Muscles tight from years of grit teeth, hunched shoulders, curled fists… simply giving way.

It would feel like peace.

There is a joy in simplicity. An over-stated, tired cliche, yet so often and so easily forgotten. There is a joy in the work of hands, in a day that ends with the setting of the sun, in solitude with companionship only when you choose.

It doesn’t sound like too much to ask for— peace, simplicity.

An artlessness that I have spent my whole life seeking.

I may not know, truly, what I want in the physical sense. In the “dreams” sense, the “ambitions” sense, the “capitalist-striving,” “career” sense.

But I know I want a life of easy breaths. Of days with work that will not shatter the earth in order to recreate it, but that will gently heal. Bring comfort and life anew. To a soul, any soul. It would be enough, I think. For me.

Disjointed thoughts seem to be the theme of late. Fragments of images and sensations and wishes, plucked from my mind in near stream-of-consciousness. I do not know how to make sense of it all yet. How to tie it all together into a coherent prose.

So I leave you with this last fragment, perhaps the clearest one so far:

If asked what I am working towards, I can only say: the exhale.

Through and Out Again

August 2, 2019

I didn’t mean to go back.

It had been years since I was even allowed to, years since the last close call that marked my decision not to return. Not that I was given a choice— the door had been closed to me ever since.

I don’t know what changed. But sure enough, while my team was deployed across the grounds and everything was set, I looked up to see the entrance tantalizingly ajar. A single air conditioning vent in my room, partially unscrewed, the shadows of stored objects making themselves known.

I was alone, still hooked to my comms, and not needed for the rest of the mission. I figured it would be a minor distraction at worst— at best, I was wrong, and it was no more than a tactically-sound exit from the room I was holed up in. So I climbed, taking little notice of the dust brushing onto my clothes, past an old necklace that looked familiar, dusted copies of books whose titles I did not recognize, paintings and posters from decades ago. I got to a place I could stand, eyes sweeping the attic-like room unsure of what to pick up first.

She would like this place. It’s perfect for exploring.

A step forward, however, and it was attic no more. I had gone too far, slipped back toward a world I did not think I would see again. Back into a role I did not understand, though I knew it would be dangerous to admit it.

I was dressed in a tux this time. The bay windows showed nighttime, and I could both see and hear the distant crashing of waves on the shore. With a wry smile, I thought of how funny it was that such a gorgeous property existed technically so close to our apartment with the thin walls and lack of space. For a colonial moment, I wondered if I could not bring my family here instead.

Then it started, and I remembered the reason why even I had vowed never to return. She walked in, older now, but still beautiful. Dark, wavy hair cascaded down her back, and her black dressed shimmered as she walked towards me. I was rooted to the spot in panic; it was too late to hide.

“There you are! You look nice. Are you ready to go?”

I nodded, wondering how on earth I was going to escape this time. “I just… need the bathroom a second.”

“…You aren’t going to disappear on me again are you?”

I laugh, trying to be casual as I walk toward what I hope is salvation. “No, no.”

She follows, clearly not believing me after last time. Right into the bathroom with me. Now this is just ridiculous.

I make a show of fixing my bow tie while she scrolls through her phone, leaning against the bathroom door. Sighing inwardly, I turn to her. “Shall we?”

Just as we emerge, someone else joins us. Him, I don’t remember, which only serves to worsen the situation. “So,” he drawls lazily, a drink he’d helped himself to already in hand. “Shall we?”

She clearly knows him, smiling and making idle conversation in a language I know I’m supposed to understand.

When I think they’ve lowered their guards down just enough, distracted as they are by each other, I do something that still shames me. I bolt.

No words of excuse, no stammering explanation, no waiting to wherever we’re supposed to be going. I just run out through the only open window onto the patio, leap across the board walk, and keep sprinting into the shopping mall ahead.

Panting, I finally use my comms. “I need an extraction, quickly.”

There’s no response, but just as I hit a sports clothing store on my left, a clerk calls out, “In here! Colored changing room!”

I don’t break my pace as I veer inside, rapidly drawing curtain after curtain to find the right changing room, confusing the hell out of the people hovering outside. There’s more than one fucking “colored” changing room.

Just as I think it, my luck shifts and I find the right one.

Hybrid

June 24, 2019

The palace would have been immaculate, if not for the bodies.

Gleaming marble floors, polished banisters, light spilling in from the few stained glass windows unobscured by thick curtains. It was beautiful.

But those damn statues of death everywhere…

I had been on excursions like this before. All of us had, as part of our training— a full tour of the sites of the old war.

But this place… This place was different.

Nowhere else could you still see the soldiers, frozen mid-battle. Nowhere else could you see the last of the rival royal families as they fought or fled, locked in the last move they ever made, the last breath they ever took.

The last of the vampires, cursed to a second death that wasn’t death.

It had been eons since the spell was cast, with a strength of magic never seen before or since. And to this day, no one has been able answer the questions of why, from where, by whom… and most importantly, for how long. Fear and superstition abound across the kingdom, many still believing the vampires would one day awaken.

The point of the visit was to dispel those myths, and see for ourselves what truly became of the titans of old. Walking amongst them, however, it was hard to hold on to the objectivity required of a historian. The stories I had been told growing up replayed unbidden in my mind, and while I usually shied away from superstition and fancy, I could not shake the unease that had wrapped itself around my heart from the moment we entered.

The vampires may have been cursed to stillness, but the stillness did not feel like the lifelessness of death… It felt like the crouch of a tiger, waiting to strike.

“What fools.”

…Clearly, I was the only one who felt this way.

“Quiet, Garrick. We still don’t know whether they can hear us.”

“I don’t care. It’s not like they can do anything about what we say. And they were idiots, fighting amongst one another like uncivilized rats rather than the superior race they claimed to be.”

With each word Garrick flung so carelessly, my panic rose.

“Garrick,” I hissed, eyes darting to the statues closest to us. Of course, they had to be the former princes, the Wairf’s wings gleaming, the Pyr’s sword still raised to cut them off. “Not. here.”

Always one to enjoy making things uncomfortable, Garrick laughed. “Fine, out in the courtyard then. I have something to show you all anyway.”

I followed, more relieved to be out of earshot of the vampires to be concerned about whatever Garrick had planned.

Until I heard the screech.

I’d read the records. I had pored over the descriptions of our former kin, and the noises they’d make to strike fear in their enemies during battle.

But I never, ever thought I would live to hear a Wairf’s scream.

I whirled to face Garrick, who was far-too-smugly leaning against the garden wall. “What have you done?”

His smirk made me wish I was close enough to plunge my sword into him.

“I made a better vampire.”

My heart was plunging to the depths of hell as he continued to speak.

“I borrowed some DNA, and I cast a little spell. They were stupid. Wairfs… Pyrs… Even the names. It didn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. They fought for nothing, just so one could claim superiority when neither deserved it. Combined, however… Combined they create a new breed. Stronger than both. Smarter than both. And released right here, for them to see where their petty war got them.”

As if timed, the hybrid’s shadow cast over us as he flew screeching through the open palace doors.

The elders are going to be so mad when they wake up.

And suddenly I knew. They were going to wake. They were going to wake because of what Garrick had done, and our people would pay.

“You idiot!”

I ran. The king would be the first. The others were already beginning to stir, droplets of their entrapment dripping to nothingness. But I had to find King Alareiks.

Behind me, the demon screeched again, looping overhead. Garrick’s magic was nowhere near as advanced as his ego, yet even I could see that his creation was truly a hybrid. The strong wings and tail of a Wairf, the lean musculature of the Pyr, the standard wolf’s head of the advanced Pyr warrior who transforms in battle.

It would have been impressive, if it wasn’t so damn stupid.

He found King Alareiks before I did, landing on the balcony overlooking the ballroom just as I skidded in, his eyes shifting between me and the nearly-awakened King of Wairfs. I kept him in my field of vision as I approached, eyes cast down as was the old custom.

For Keeps

June 13, 2019

This is yours to keep.

This moment, soon-to-be memory, soon-to-be faded dream. This caress of words, so soft you might break. This whisper of touch, so loud your voice shakes. This weight. Not burden, just the knowing: you’re safe.

It cannot last. Fear will creep. Reality seeps. Present gently wars with future and past.

But for now, there is this.

And this is yours to keep.

After the War

2nd June 2019

You joined the fight so you could stop feeling helpless. And yet now, as the world crumbles around you, the anguish is worse than it’s ever been. All you can do is watch, and follow, as they drag them into the chamber, chained and blindfolded, silent in the face of death. Your allies. Your friends.

You curse the powers that drew you to the war in the first place. Being unseen, unheard unless made aware, was incredibly useful for intelligence gathering, for stealth missions where slit throats were better than the cacophony of gunfire. But now, though desperate to be seen, desperate to show that you haven’t abandoned them, desperate to die by their side, something within you – always beyond your control – won’t let you.

The anguish gives way to anger. You scream, but the soldiers calmly piling your friends in a room too white to be pure remain impassive. Just following their orders, unknowing, unseeing. You follow them out the door.

“You’ll kill them! You’ll kill children and old men! But you won’t kill me? Not young enough? Not old enough? Look at me!”

Nothing. Not from them. Not from your friends.

Then a small gasp from behind you. The doctor heard something. She sees something. You whirl, are on her in a second, a knife nearly severing the artery on the side of her neck before you realize with horror that she’s pregnant. They’d send someone pregnant to do this, someone carrying life to take it clinically and without thought. Does her line even deserve to go on, if she’s here? But no. You won’t kill a child. A mother. Not even one of theirs.

“How can I help them? Where are the keys?” You press the knife in just a little more, just enough to make her think she’s going to die. “Where?”

“Next room over,” she chokes out. “They always keep the keys in the next room over, to collect the chains once it’s done.”

You let her go. Grab the gauze on the tray next to her and wrap it around her throat. She says nothing, and you know she won’t betray you.

Then you’re there. Some focus, a short run, and you’re in the next room but you’re not alone. The keys are in the general’s hand but there’s no time for stealth, no time to make sure you’re still unseen. You grab. She resists, grabs for you, calls for guards, but you wrench yourself away.

You will not fail them. Not when you’re so close.

Out the room. Back to the next. Hands working fast, keys shaking and chains clinking to the floor. You can hear the guards – much less impassive now as they rush towards you all – but you don’t care as long as they get out first.

You drag them away, weary, broken, confused, but running for the lives they so nearly lost.
Then it’s over. The war.

The rubble remains. The ash still in the air despite how many months it’s been. Despite people out amongst the ruins everyday, trying to rebuild.

There’s a new leader now. You remember him. Fought with him, once. He’ll be good for the world. Already trying to make amends.

You listen to him speak, simple words from a man who spent more time using his hands. The world listens. All over, from crumbling skyscrapers to burnt villages.

You know they do, because you turn and walk away, find yourself in Tokyo, his words echoing in Japanese through the larger-than-life holograms.

Another step. The same in Russia.

Another step. The same in Dubai.

It feels like a movie. Cut-scene after cut-scene. Nation after nation. Showing what remains of the world as they listen to the one person who can give them hope.

You come to the street of the last battle. Where you struggled so hard to save your friends. The barricades have been removed, but it’s not much of a road, still. Still churned up concrete and stains you want to forget. You can’t breathe. You can’t move. But you can’t leave.

So you scream, rushing forward, seeing the horses and the enemies on top of them again, dark helmets and vests, before you’re back to reality, and the lights on top of shotguns turn into lanterns as food deliveries are made.

Food. Food sounds nice.

You wander, finally deciding on a small family-owned place. But when you walk in you realize you’re still crying. Turn just as the little boy locks eyes with yours. Curious. Concerned. Then he runs past you, yelling for his parents as you ignore him and rush to the bathroom, pour water over your face again and again.

You need to get clean, but you know you’ll never feel pure again. Still, you take off your suit, ignore the scars on your skin, try to cool your burning skin with wet cloth.

You’re about to get dressed again when she bursts in. Clearly the locks here are useless. You avoid her eye, grabbing your clothes and hoping she’ll just leave.

She looks scared. You hate that you notice. You know it means you’ll do something about it.

She notices you then. Takes a breath, puts on a charming smile. Glances at your body then lays a hand on your chest, groping. “I didn’t know you were a woman under there. That’s kind of exciting. What if we…”

You don’t let her finish. You grip her wrist, move it away. “You and I both know that I’m not your type.” You don’t tell her you’re offended she thought this what she needed to do, to get help from a soldier. You don’t tell her you’ve been used and manipulated enough to not want something as sacred as this tainted by transaction. You don’t tell her she’s pretty, and tempting, and that you might have let her continue her thought in another life, one where she wasn’t so obviously straight.

Instead, you say, “I heard the boy. I know you’re all in trouble. Just let me get dressed.”

She sighs out a thank you, grateful and ashamed in one breath. You ignore it.

You put your clothes back on, listening to the noises outside. Loud, confident men barking orders and laughs and making the waitresses squeal in fear. You know the gangs that have emerged since the war. You know the way they’ve clawed into small businesses like this one.

You wonder if that was partly why you walked in here.

Then you walk out the door, to the large center table, and you remind yourself what it’s like not to feel helpless.