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DENISE & WESLEY JOHNSON ARE A COUPLE OF MODEST MEANS. DENISE BECOMES PREGNANT, FOREVER CHANGING THEIR LIVES AND THE LIVES OF 5 STRANGERS: IMANI, A PRIEST WHO TEACHES AND MINISTERS TO A GROUP OF PEOPLE IN REMOTE WESTERN AFRICA; DONALD, A HOMELESS DENIZEN OF THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO; MRS. WILDA ELVERS, A PARTIALLY BLIND AND ELDERLY WOMAN LIVING IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA; VERA, A QUIET AND SHY REGISTERED NURSE AT SAN FRANCISCO GENERAL HOSPITAL; AND TROY, A FIVE-YEAR-OLD BOY WHO HAS NOT SPOKEN A WORD SINCE WITNESSING THE DEATH OF HIS MOTHER IN A DRIVE-BY SHOOTING.
AT THE PRECISE MOMENT DENISE AND WESLEY CONCEIVE THEIR CHILD, THEY ARE ALL SENT SPIRALING INTO A LONG DESCENT OF BIZARRE AND SUPERNATURAL EVENTS, THAT ONE DAY BRINGS THEM TOGETHER.
Hemingway slept on the park bench. Old yellow newspapers and a dirty green army surplus blanket were wrapped around him. The sun was up, glinting through the morning fog as the birds began their daily routine. He burrowed deeper into the blanket but without success. The blanket worn and frayed at the ends could not cover the ragged and torn blue plaid shirt and the stiffly stained faded jeans he wore over his slight frame. Pigeon shit landed on his head. It oozed down the side of his scalp and came to rest behind his ear. He stumbled off the bench, wiping at the bird shit.
"You stupid bird, leave me alone,” he yelled. “Hey Hemingway, why don’t you shut the fuck up! People trying to sleep here asshole!” someone yelled.
He reached down and picked his blanket off the bench and neatly folded it in four and placed it in his shopping cart. It was going to be another beautiful and sunny day in San Francisco. This was the perfect day to spread the word, to warn every one of the coming disasters and perils.
He arched his back and stretched his arms over his head, slowly surveying the overflowing trash cans in the park. Somewhere there was a breakfast waiting just for him. He began scouring the nearest trash can, never thinking that he deserved better. Donald Hemingway was a murderer.
Raised in an upper-middle class area of Berkeley, California, Hemingway was voted the most likely to succeed at the private school he attended. After graduating he attended Stanford, but during his junior year enlisted in the Army. He wanted to do the noble thing and fight for his country. His parents, however, were heartbroken. His mother was sure he would never make it back and his father told him he had made one-dumb-ass mistake. Nevertheless, his father was silently proud of his son’s patriotism.
Hemingway was thrust into the midst of the Vietnam war. The climate was hot and muggy, something that he never became accustomed to, and the smell of death and wet decay were everywhere.
He watched his buddies die. Jacob Washington, his head blown off while crawling right in front of him through the humid and wet jungle. Globs of wet tissue and blood splattered Hemingway’s face. Derrick Sweeney, eighteen years old, full of nervous laughter, with the look of barely-escaped-panic within his eyes. Derrick had a right to his terror and panic. He was shot in the balls. He slowly and painfully bled to death, tightly holding onto Hemingway’s hands and nervously laughing.
The pain and despair of watching his friends die right before his eyes was bad enough, but then Hemingway became a murderer, and that was worse.
He and his troop were taking a break, kneeling in the moist jungle. Someone offered him a cigarette. Just as his hands reached for the butt a succession of bullets flew through the air. Hemingway threw himself on his belly and looked for the enemy.
He spotted the motherfucker. Hemingway would kill his ass for all the times his pals screamed out in wounded agony. He aimed at the person rushing through the tangle of vegetation and he fired. The assailant screamed as a gush of blood spurted from his neck.
Another one to his right. He did not see Hemingway.
“It’s you or me baby,” Hemingway whispered as he pulled the trigger. The rifle shot rang in his ears, and the bullet had made its mark. The enemy stumbled and fell backwards.
When the fighting was over the troops surveyed the carnage one American solider was killed and four were wounded. Hemingway was the only soldier that had killed any of the Vietnamese attackers.
He walked over to the first body. The man was lying on his back, eyes wide open staring at an empty sky. But this was no man! Hemingway knelt next to the body and looked closer. “My God,” he said aloud. “He’s just a boy, just a fucking kid.”
He staggered over to the second victim lying in the damp foliage. Again Hemingway cried out and then vomited over his boots as tears of remorse and self-hatred filled his eyes. This boy was even younger than the first, twelve years old at the most. Hemingway imagined that he could still smell milk on the boy’s breath.
At that moment, something deep inside Donald Hemingway snapped. Something that he could never again recapture. He would never forgive himself for what he had done. He sat on the jungle floor and sobbed. Eventually, he became very quiet. His eyes remained vacant and empty when attempts were made to get his attention. His only response was to hold his arms tightly around his waist and sway back and forth.
It became apparent that this was something he would not get over within a few days. The memory of the two children, bloody and lifeless kept haunting his thoughts, and became constant nightmares. The medics hauled him back to camp and the doctors eventually decided to shovel him back home to the States.
The only words’ Hemingway spoke for the first three years after his stint in Vietnam were, “Thou shall not kill.”
His parents reluctantly decided to have him institutionalized. His mother could not accept the loss of her son’s mind, and she died just one year after he returned from the war. His father provided the best medical and psychiatric care he could afford. Eventually he realized that his only child would never fully recover. He would never again sit in front of the television and watch a football game with his son. Never again would they have heated discussions about the war, nor would they ever reminisce over the many memories they had shared of his wife.
However, Hemingway did improve as the years drifted by in the stuffy and timeless institution. He began to speak again, and he also accepted that he had murdered two children.
After several more years, the doctors felt it was time for him to leave the confines of the hospital. After all, Hemingway was not a violent person. There were patients worse than Hemingway that needed his bed.
For so long Hemingway felt as if he were in a prison. Every morning when he awoke from another nightmare he wanted to run, to flee the dreams, but instead he could only look at the barred windows in his suicide protective room. When he was released and sent home, his father barely saw him. All Hemingway wanted was the outdoors, now that he was free of the drugs, locked doors, and sterile rooms with little or no sunlight.
He could never forgive himself for killing those two Vietnamese children. He did not deserve forgiveness, but he could warn others. He could tell them the story of how he had been deceived and mislead by the devil. This became his mission.
It was 8:30 a.m. Hemingway found a half-eaten breakfast croissant in the garbage next to the Burger King at the intersection of Market and Ninth Street. He hungrily gobbled it down as he pushed his basket along the street, chanting his warning to passers-by.
“The time is coming, be prepared! The fight for your soul is about to take place! Prepare yourself! The devil is on his way,” he yelled.
A young woman in her early twenties, nicely dressed in a pale yellow sundress, was walking in the opposite direction. About to step out of his way, she noticed how striking his eyes were.
“Like blue ice, or sun sparkles on a lake during a hot summer day,” she thought, as she almost walked into him. She recovered herself as her arm gently brushed against him, and continued her way.
Indeed if Hemingway were not so dirty and shabbily dressed, he would be considered strikingly handsome. Standing at five foot ten, on the lean side, with shoulder length light brown hair, he had attracted many admirers. He had been propositioned often, by both men and women.
However, the only thing of importance to Hemingway was transmitting his message of oncoming doom.
“The time is coming, prepare yourself! The devil is on his way. Save your soul, the devil is on his way.”
He continued to push his grocery cart through the streets for most of the morning, slowly heading toward the Ferry Building. He shouted his endless warnings of despair. His hair blew across his face in long dirty streaks, and the loose soles of his dirty white sneakers flapped on the pavement.
“Prepare yourself, prepare your self! Save your soul! The devil is on his way. The devil is on his way.”
He reached the Ferry Building by a quarter to eleven. He then turned and retraced his steps back up Market Street. His stomach grumbled. It was time for lunch.
By noon he reached McDonald’s at the Civic Center. He was partial to half-eaten Big Mac’s. He stood at his usual place, on the left side of the entrance to the fast food restaurant. He waited for someone to give him a hand out or toss their uneaten food in a nearby trash can.
“The devil wants your soul, prepare yourself. The time is coming. Confess your sins. Repent, repent. The devil is on his way. Repent, repent.”
“Hey, Pretty Boy Hemingway,” another bum yelled out over his cries of warning. “What ya' doing man? You wanna share some of my bottle? Got me some hard stuff this time Pretty Boy.”
“Drinking is a sin, you will die in hell! Prepare yourself for disaster, the devil is coming,” Hemingway vehemently stated.
“Yeah whatever white boy. More drink for me,” the bum replied, and gave a mock toast to Hemingway and continued his shuffling down the street.
A middle-aged woman with a receding hair line and a faint mustache walked out of the restaurant and told Hemingway to, “Get a damn job.”
An elderly white man with a cup of coffee in his unsteady hand gave his cup to Hemingway adding, “It tastes like mud.”
An overweight black woman stopped and dug inside her purse. She handed him a crumpled dollar bill. Her smile was angelic.
An Asian boy, in his early teens with black sunglasses, a wool scarf tied around his neck and tucked inside his jacket, and wearing a beanie cap that covered half of his face, asked if he was hungry. Hemingway did not know how to respond. He looked at the kid shyly and nodded.
“My Aunt, she own resrunt'. She give scrap food to anybody ’dere. In back, in back of resrunt',” the boy pointed to an alley less than a block away. “Follow me, she give you food.”
Hemingway stared at the boy, hesitating. The boy turned and started walking toward the alley, beckoning him. Hemingway did not follow, but continued to watch him. The kid, realizing that Hemingway was not going to come with him, ran back to his side.
“Maybe you don’t ’stand. My English not so good. My Aunt, she feeds you, ’else she throws it ’way. Aunt got plenty lef over from resrunt.”
The thought of food, of good hot scraps, made Hemingway’s stomach rubble. The boy, hearing it, laughed and said, “See you hungry.” He turned around and started walking back toward the alley. Again, he looked back and shouted, “C’mon.”
Hemingway stood there undecided. He then pushed the grocery cart slowly up the street toward the alley where the boy had vanished.
He entered the alley and saw the silhouette of the boy walking ahead. The buildings on either side of the alley blocked out most of the sunlight, and left the alley in deep shadows. The alley reeked of urine. Just as he reached the child, the boy disappeared. Hemingway panicked. He turned around in confusion. The boy suddenly stood directly in front of him.
“Relax man, relax, you my friend,” the boy said. “You don’t ’member me?”
Hemingway did not reply.
“You don’t ’member me man?” the boy asked again.
The child stepped closer to Hemingway; cold air encircled him. Hemingway stepped back in fear. The boy matched it with a step toward him. Suddenly, the boy reached out and violently pushed the grocery cart to one side. It tipped over and fell. Hemingway’s possessions spilled across the floor of the alley. The child looked down at the army surplus blanket, dented cans of food, soiled and stained clothing, stacks of newspapers, and aluminum cans strewn across the dirty pavement. The child giggled as he unzipped his pants and pissed over the entire contents of the cart. When he finished his nasty deed, the boy shook himself off, laughed, and stepped closer to Hemingway.
Frozen in panic, Hemingway stood as if he were a deer caught in the headlights of an oncoming car.
“You don’t ’member me?” the boy asked for the third time. “You my friend, I like you. You be my friend too? We can help ’nother, you and me.”
Hemingway, regaining his wits, looked frantically around for a way out of the alley. He turned to flee in the opposite direction, but again, the boy stood in his way.
“Don’t leem me ’gan,” whispered the boy. “I only wanna be friend. Come with me, you special. I can get you any ’thing you want. I get you lots and lots of food, any ’thing you want,” the boy whispered.
Hemingway began to feel tired. His eyes began to droop as the boy’s sweet and soft whispers made him drowsy. The alley grew darker and lonelier, and the boy continued to speak softly in a hypnotizing voice.
“Please don’t leem me ’gan. Be my friend. Come with me.”
The boy stood so close to him now that he could smell his breath. It smelled like innocence, young fresh innocence. He recognized the smell as milk. At that recognition, he smiled to himself, and watched in languid fascination as the child held out his pleading hands.
“Please come with me, juss take my hand. Be my friend,” the boy begged.
Hemingway started to reach out to the boy, but abruptly stopped in midair.
A shot of lightning seemed to strike the center of his skull, and clean the dust and cobwebs from his brain. When the pain subsided, he had his first clear recognizable thought in over twenty-three years.
How could this boy see in this dark alley wearing those dark sunglasses? How could this boy move so quickly from the front of the alleyway to the back? Why did this boy wear a wool beanie cap and a wool scarf and jacket, when today was one of those rare sweater-less days in San Francisco?
He stepped back. The boy sensed that something had changed in Hemingway’s attitude.
“You come with me whether you like it or not! You stupid ass ’ole,” the boy yelled.
His soft childlike voice, transformed into an angry scream. The wind picked up and his voice rose in tempo. Where there was no wind before, trash and debris blew in a miniature tornado.
“You don’t ’member me?” the boy yelled. “You don’t ’member me?”
The child, in the middle of a tantrum, stomped his feet and howled in frustration. He yanked his beanie off and then removed his sunglasses.
“You still don’t ’member me?” the child shrieked, venting his tantrum.
He ripped his jacket off and tore away his scarf. A large and bloody gash gaped out of his neck. The flesh around the gash hung in swollen black and blue lumps as blood spurted in tiny rivulets and ran down his chest.
The memory slammed into Hemingway, and he staggered backwards, as the force of the realization filled him with horror. It was the very same terror and misery he had felt when he looked down at this boy lying in the Vietnam jungle. The anguish and pain of realizing that this was the child he had killed, hit him in his guts. A burning sensation bubbled at the pit of his stomach and a sickly sour taste quickly filled his mouth. He felt exactly as he did on the very day he had committed the murders.
The boy continued to shriek in rage. Blood spurted faster now from the open wound. It plastered the child’s shirt and pants to his slight body. Hemingway smelled the raw acrid scent of blood. He bent his head to the side and vomited.
He then broke away from the child and ran as fast as he could. One thought ran through him, “Get the hell out of here.” The alleyway protracted, seemed to grow longer, and his steps became sluggish. His breathing, hard and short, burned in his chest. The air in the alley turned thick and humid, and Hemingway knew he could hear the sounds of the jungle. The child’s voice now sounded monstrous. It vibrated against the walls and floor of the alley.
“Come with me, don’t leem me. You ’member me!”
Hemingway continued to run. He felt trapped in a dirty glass bottle. The burning in his chest grew stronger. Each intake of air made his chest feel hot and raw. Then he saw a glimpse of light from the street and it gave him the added strength to push his well-worn shoes farther.
He glanced back, and made sure the monster was not too close. However, the boy stood right behind him, only inches away. The blood from his neck now poured out in a steady stream and small white maggots fell from his neck in lumps, riding the blood like a crimson waterfall.
The boy stretched his hands out to Hemingway and laughed in gleeful madness. A thick gooey yellowish substance slid out of his mouth and splattered on the pavement, mixing into the blood and changing the black red color to a fleshy pink. Hemingway gagged on the smell of rotting milk.
He felt his fear jump down his throat and rush through his body. He turned from hot to an icy cold sweat. He continued to run, and he did not look back again. When he finally reached the street, he was unable to stop. The thought of stopping for anything did not enter his mind. He bolted straight in front of the cars on Market Street and collapsed on the edge of the opposite curb.
A police officer arrived on the scene a few minutes after the ambulance. He asked the small crowd if anyone had witnessed what had happened. A man in his mid-twenties, wearing an outdated white suit stepped forward. The officer wrote down the young man’s statement and asked if he had any idea what time it was when he saw the derelict fall to the pavement.
“Sure, I was just synchronizing my watch with the Ferry Building’s clock when I saw the guy hit the curb. It was 12:42 p.m.,” he replied.