He shook the can of spray paint one more time and finished his newest mural with a flourish of red mist that sent a fresh wave of chemicals wafting down the alley. As he stepped back, he cocked his head and then gave a satisfied nod, returning the paint to the black backpack at his feet with a jaunty flick of his wrist.
The painting was a tangle of motion, starkly drawn black figures against a background of red blood and a grayish blue that suggested mountains. The lower left corner held a bitten-off tree stump with a tiny green shoot sprouting from its middle. He called it Resurrection, a title he found pleasingly ironic.
After slinging the backpack onto his back, he took off down the alley at a steady lope. The wind was bitter cold, though not quite freezing, and the low hanging clouds suggested a storm. It always seemed to be dark here, always storming. He should be used to it by now, but some days he missed the light. He kept jogging, wanting to find a place off the street before the rain began.
When he neared the overpass, he glanced around, looking for the others in his group. They weren’t a gang. They didn’t even really call each other friends. But they had each other’s backs. Trip had been on the streets the longest, Jazz the shortest. Jack and Alana, twins, had been on the streets for a combined total of twelve years. Right now, though, the only one he saw was Graciela, curled on her side, with her back to the concrete. A smile flicked across his lips when he saw her.
The first time he’d seen her, she had still been wearing her Catholic confirmation dress. The white lace had been torn at her shoulder, and there were streaks of mud on it, but he could see it had been something fine and beautiful, something out of place on the streets. Four older boys had surrounded her, one of them grasping her chin with his fingers, raising her up on her tip toes. There was blood at her temple, and her arms wrapped protectively around her middle. When one of the other boys grabbed her arm, pulling it away, he saw the round swelling of her stomach, a tell-tale sign of pregnancy on her otherwise thin frame.
When he thought back on that day, he knew he must have made a noise, because she had twisted in the larger boy’s grasp to look toward him. Her dark eyes were huge in her hollow face, but they weren’t afraid. They weren’t ashamed. They were alive. That was the only way he could think to describe them, even all these months later. That one glance had been enough to tell even a blockhead like him that here was something fine, something beautiful, something out of place on the streets.
He must have lost his head a bit after that, because the next thing he remembered was Trip dragging him off the last of the four boys to keep him from killing him. One of the other boys lay moaning on the ground a few feet away, and the other two were nowhere to be seen, having split at the first sign of trouble.
Now, he swung up onto the concrete ledge and hurried toward her. But when he was a feet away, he saw her clench her jaw and curl into an even tighter ball. A groan escaped her lips, and he saw that, despite the cold, her skin was sweaty and deadly pale.
Something colder than the wind tightened in his chest. “Graci?” he asked, kneeling beside her.
She opened her eyes just a slit. “Jahan.”
“What’s wrong? Is it the baby?” Without waiting for her to answer, he slipped an arm under her shoulder and started to pull her up. “We have to get you to the hospital.”
“No!” Her fingernails dug into his forearm. “No hospital!” She pronounced it ho-spee-tahl, her accent still strong, though from what she’d told him, she had moved here two years ago. “They might find me. They can’t find me.”
“Okay. Okay.” She had never told him about how she’d gotten pregnant, about what made her leave home – he didn’t figure it was any of his business, so he had never asked. He tried to think. Where to go? Where to go? He pulled her to her feet, and she leaned heavily on him. “We have to at least get you out of the wind.”
An hour later, the only place they’d been able to find was a broken down tool shed behind a house that looked like its owners might be away for the holidays. He was tempted to break into the house, but on the off-chance its inhabitants were home, he didn’t want to risk getting arrested. The only thing worse than Graciela’s parents finding her at a hospital would be them finding her in jail.
Graci’s eyes were tightly shut, and a tiny trickle of blood ran from her lip where she’d bitten it. Her body went rigid as the next contraction came and went. Contraction. She’s having her baby. Oh, God. Oh, God! He wouldn’t have considered himself particularly religious before today, but those words were as close to an honest prayer as he had ever prayed.
“Graci – I’m going to find someone to help. I promise I’ll be right back.”
She wouldn’t let go of his hand. “Don’t…go.”
“But – ”
“You must stay,” she panted. “I need you here.”
So, because he couldn’t make himself leave, he stayed. He stayed, trembling, ready to vomit with fear, trying desperately to remember what he had learned from the births of his two sisters and three brothers. The day grew long, and the rain pounded on the skylight over their heads, and he shushed, and she stifled her screams, and he prayed, and she screamed, and he wondered why no one heard, and she screamed again. Then, finally, as the rain slowed and darkness crept near, a different cry filled the old shed. A baby’s cry.
He was small, but he screamed loud, and he had a head covered in dark hair like Graciela’s. He laid him on her chest, and he heard her whisper, “Mi hijo,” before falling sound asleep.
The rain stopped, and the day’s last rays of sun filtered through the water drops on the skylight to fall directly on Graci and her baby. He lay on his side next to her and pushed a sweat-soaked strand of hair away from her forehead. As he turned to his back and closed his eyes, the sunlight became a million tiny stars scattered across the inside of his eyelids.
Light. Suddenly, all he could see was light.