by Lourdes Badgett
Ilya huddled in his grungy jeans on the beach. He finally made it after hitch hiking several days, taking him further and further away from home. He was starving, thirsty and didn’t know what to do about it but at least he wasn’t home anymore. He wouldn’t get hurt over and over and feel helpless. He felt free but he knew it was going to get desperate real fast. Last night he narrowly dodged prostituting himself for money with the last guy who gave him a ride. He wasn’t interested in the man who must of only given him a ride with the hope of something more. The driver had dead looking gray-blue eyes, just like his father. He didn’t want to be any closer to him for that reason alone.
He closed his eyes and inhaled the salty breeze that seemed to go in rhythm of the ocean’s waves when he saw some kids on the beach. They looked close to his age, fifteen. They were happy and enjoying their summer vacation at the beach. He saw an older pretty lady calling to the boys. He bet those kids hated their mom despite how good they had it.
Ilya rubbed his eyes since he didn’t sleep well the night before. And felt itchy from not bathing for a few days. His left wrist ached and he was gently massaging it since the bones were still mending together. He managed to rip off the cast a few days ago. Looking at his wrist, he noticed a star shaped scar. Where did that come from?
“Hey, kid” Ilya looked up to the stranger that interrupted his thoughts. He stood in front of the sun, with a dark profile surrounded by brilliant light.
“You look lost. Are your parents coming along soon?”
Ilya covered his eyes to get a better look at the guy. Older and tallish with fine lines along his mouth and eyes. He had light hair but there definitely was some gray throughout.
“Not a kid actually. Just turned eighteen, so parents are a non-issue. Plus it’s none of your fucking business” Ilya replied. Being polite was overrated.
“Uh huh. Right. Mind if I place my stuff nearby to do my afternoon tai chi?” He dropped off his shoulder bag. There was something poking out, several colorful items that were thin, flat and squarish.
Ilya’s face had a pinched look and looked at the guy like he was crazy. What in the hell was tai chi?
“As long as you stay out of my way. This beach isn’t my private property” Ilya retorted. He wasn’t even sure if he should stick around any longer since he felt out of place. Plus, he was starving.
“I sense a bit of hostility. But this is a free country. My name’s Dave and I’m going to leave my stuff here. Cool with you?” He laid out an over-sized beach towel that had sharks all over. He placed his shoulder bag on top of it. Ilya stared at the bag more intently. What could he have in there? And more importantly, should he take the risk and peek in the bag? This guy could be a beach stoner dude and have snacks on him. Or cash. Cash would be peachy.
Dave walked a ways onto the beach and then stopped at a certain point where there wasn’t anyone else around. He stood very still and erect and Ilya decided to pay attention for a bit to get an idea of whatever the hell was so important about tai chi.
Dave moved slowly and gently out of his stiff and upright posture and then seemed to flow like water into the next movement. Many times he looked like he was either dancing very strangely or carrying some weird energy ball. Ilya chuckled to himself thinking about an old anime that his elder brother Aaron used to love, Dragon Ball Z. His smile quickly faded since his brother was gone. He still felt the loss greatly even though it had been five years since he died.
Aaron was ten years older and had big plans for himself. Though Ilya wished he chose anything else other than the Army. They were dirt poor and he wanted to get his education paid for. All his dreams wiped away clean during his first tour. Everything else came crashing down after that. His mother never recovered from his brother’s death and drowned herself in alcohol everyday. His father hated his life and took it out on everyone around him. It almost felt like Ilya died too.
“You okay kid?” Dave asked and pulled Ilya out of his brooding state. Ilya got angry and was about to tell him where he could go mind his business once again, when he realized he had tears streaming down his face. Goddamnit. Ilya swiped his hand quickly to remove the evidence. The last thing he needed was to get emotional with a perfect stranger.
“Guess not, Dave” Ilya said dispassionately. Why lie? He looked down at his hands and wished he was anywhere but here.
Dave stared a few more moments before shaking his head and walking towards his towel. He grabbed his bag and pulled out a bright orange, flat and squarish object.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked nonchalantly, not looking at Ilya at all, but focusing his attention on the orange object in his hand. He pulled it apart in such a way that it turned into this large inflated looking blob.
“Just the usual teenage runaway bullshit. What in the hell is that? You need weird balloons in tai chi too?” Ilya asked, but truthfully he was barely interested. If he had anywhere to go he would’ve left already.
“Runaway, eh? Funny, I might be able to help you. Just this morning Ms. Kim was telling me she needed some help in her restaurant.” Dave turned towards Ilya and started walking with the large orange balloon-like object in hand. He stopped a short distance in front of him.
“This is a sky lantern. You light them up during memorials and celebrations depending on the custom or culture. I think maybe you should light this one. And you can write something on it, anything at all that might make you feel better. In celebration or to let go of something.”
Dave held out the lantern to Ilya. Ilya stared at the lantern; it was much bigger up close and started to bristle about his suggestion. He looked up about to tell him off once and for all, but was stopped short by Dave’s eyes. They were a nondescript brown, but so very sad.
“What do you write in yours?” Ilya asked as he reluctantly took the sky lantern.
“It depends on what I’m feeling. But it usually always has something to do with my son, Emmanuel. He died in a car accident several years ago. This is how I celebrate his life, since we used to light sky lanterns on the beach.” Dave looked away for a moment, staring into the sea.
Ilya felt guilty staring at Dave in his own sadness and focused on the delicate papery feel of the sky lantern and wondered what Aaron would think of it. Would he see it in heaven, if it existed?
“What is Ms. Kim hiring for?” Ilya asked Dave and started to wonder if this guy was going to end up being some sort of guardian angel of his.
“I am an old friend to the family and try to visit their restaurant when in town. Sounded like she needed a dishwasher or something. Beggars can’t be choosers…what’s your name anyway?” Dave asked but turned around and started back towards his towel and bag of sky lanterns. He pulled out a green one and started puffing it up into it’s natural airborne state. Once he was satisfied he pulled out a sharpie and start to write on its side.
“Ilya. And a dishwasher sounds like the worst job ever.” A pause. “Doesn’t seem like writing on sky lanterns will do much” Ilya watched Dave write and ran through his mind different ideas, despite his words.
“Well Ilya, scars on the heart don’t always mend with just time. Sometimes we have to honor those scars somehow and this is how I deal with mine. You can try it out and never do it again if that’s what suits you. Besides, I hear you get free meals working in restaurants.” Dave handed him the sharpie he was using. Ilya looked at Dave’s green lantern, but couldn’t read what he wrote since since it was too small and sideways.
Ilya looked down at his orange sky lantern and knew he was going to write Aaron a note that he hoped would reach him somehow. Wait a minute, free food?
“When can I start?” Ilya asked with a sideways grin. And then he started to write.