Note: I promise it is a freak coincidence that this chapter involves telling a Chris he is, indeed, a good enough man.
Ben could scarcely remember when he last felt so alone. It had to be before the school, before he met his friends. He drew a long, slow breath, and found it. When his parents died, when his tiny world was shattered, and he hid in their home, trying to get away from the despair, trying to get away from everything that was trying to swallow him whole. He cried for hours, before his brother finally found him. He was nearly catatonic, barely registered his brother picking him up and carrying him to his room. And he held him there, for hours still, until he felt he could breathe again, until he felt he could feel again. It didn’t salve the loss that burned him whenever he remembered it, but it did make him feel a little less alone against its encroaching dark.
A tear slid down his face as he realized he would never have that again with his brother. And that was why he so desperately needed to hear from Cris, to make sure at least one person he cared about was still alive.
Ben’s hand shot out for the radio, knocking it off the table, sending it clattering across the linoleum floor. He dove for it an instant later, crashing loudly over his chair as he did. He keyed the radio. “Cris?” he asked, his voice trembling more than he was comfortable.
There was a broken laugh on the other end, halfway to a sob. “Ben,” Cris said. “Thank God. I’ve been trying to get you for days. Asshole ICE must have broken the radio when they beat the crap out of me. I had to reopen the cut in my arm with the prong of a plastic fork. Which is mostly to say that it worked about as well as an Anita plan usually does, I guess.”
“No,” Cris said, emotion clawing at his voice. “Things are pretty damn far from okay here. I mean, you expect bad things when you hear the words ‘child prison,’ but… the reality is still worse than you can possibly imagine. But… I guess it’s been a revelatory experience. You’ve heard that the lord works in mysterious ways, right? I think I finally get that. I’ve always been more lover than fighter, but I think it’s safe to say I’ve also been jealous. Because when it comes to a fight, to stopping injustice, there’s very little I can do. I’ve wished I had your ability, or really anybody else’s. And I don’t think I could be here if I did. If it were in my power, even now, even calmer after a bit of time here, I would bring this place down on my head in a heartbeat, like Samson. And the last thing these kids need is another trauma; I can’t even process what would happen if I got even one of them hurt.”
“I don’t know about God,” Ben said. “I’ve seen enough lately, if there is one, he’s a prick, and I’m not interested in what he’s selling. But you… you’re a good guy, Cris. Better than me- better than most. Sometimes rage is the right response to a tragedy. But, a wise man knows how to apply that rage, and when, so the damage doesn’t fall on the innocent.”
“Yeah,” Cris said. “Is Rox there? We need to get these kids out of here.”
“And you,” Ben said. “But there’s… look, we got another call. Rox and Anita went north. The plan was to wait for them to get back, but… I’m not doing that. I can hear it in your voice. We’re not sitting on this. I hear what you’re going through, and I’m not going to leave you to wallow in it.”
“Speaking of… do you want to talk about it?”
“Whatever it is you’re going through.”
“I don’t know…”
“You don’t know what you’re going through, or you don’t know if you want to talk about it?” He paused, before adding, “Or you were going to deny knowing what I was talking about.”
“That,” Ben said, shame flattening his voice.
“I know you try to protect us. Because you’re big, because you’re strong. Because that means people naturally look at you as someone protective. But you don’t always have to be. I learned that myself. Healing people, it wasn’t just a physical job. Because with hurt usually comes… hurt, but emotional, psychological. I think long-term I’ve done more good listening to people than laying hands on them. You don’t have to be made out of stone to be there for us; in fact, if you try, some day you’re going to fail. Because you can’t be strong all the time. And if you can’t be honest about how you feel, and what you need, your strength may fail when you need it most.”
“I hear you.”
“You don’t have to tell me what it is, Ben. However much you want to say, I’m here for you- at least until my battery dies.”
“I don’t-“ he stopped a moment, to collect himself, “how do you go on, in the face of it all?”
“I think that’s a more complicated question than it sounds. But I can tell you, these last few years, there are days when the weight of the world is just too much, even feeling like we’re only holding up a small part of it, and that you’re all helping me carry the weight… so I find something smaller. I can’t carry what I feel like I’m supposed to. So I find something else. Someone who needs help, someone I can help, even if I can barely put pants on through the thick depression. The first night here, that was finding a little girl I could help. I couldn’t save her; I couldn’t even break myself out. But I made her feel a little less alone that night. And she saved me as much as I helped her. And tonight Ben, that was you, with me. Hearing a friendly voice, remembering that there’s a world outside of this place that isn’t completely centered around abject cruelty and dehumanization… I can breathe a little easier tonight. The world can be a better place, but we build that world one brick at a time, together. So find a brick. Then find another. And one day, you’ll look up, and be amazed at the totality of the good that you’ve done. But for today, just find a brick, like you did with me.”
“We’re going to get you out of there. I meant what I said.” “I know,” Cris said.