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the better angels of our nature

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We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Irony. Derek's come to hate the word, though not because he's heard it aloud so much as it's been rattling around in his mind. A word that can be used to describe situations like the man inventing the Stop sign not knowing how to drive. Or the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous asking for a whiskey on his deathbed. Or the younger brother of a former skinhead being shot when the one who deserved the bullet was the former skinhead. Derek runs a hand over his head, fingers brushing through hair that had just begun to feel familiar. He wonders whether or not to he should cut it. These days, he wonders a lot of things.

"Derek?" The voice is soft, and that's how Derek knows it's Sweeney's. Sweeney is the only one who uses a gentle tone with him anymore, ever since his mother screamed him out of the house and fell to her knees with wracking sobs. He hasn't gone back since. He can't even think about putting them in danger after what's happened.

"I came by to bring you this," Derek mutters, shoving the paper into Sweeney's palms and wiping his own sweaty ones on his pants. He doesn't look over his shoulder anymore, doesn't really give a shit if anyone is gunning for him. He just hopes it'll be quick when it comes. "It's - it's Danny's." The name burns his mouth; he doesn't deserve to speak it. "I thought you should have it."

He cleaned the blood off best he could, which was more or less fucking pointless because his tears dirtied it all up again when he read it over.

People look at me and see my brother.

How would life be different for the both of them if that wasn’t true?

Derek jams his hands in his pockets and spins on his heel, ready to go back the shithole he has rented out in one of the sketchiest places in town. Not much in there; a bed, a dresser, a toilet. A gun. A decision.

"Wait," Sweeney says, reaching out to catch Derek by the elbow. Derek jerks his arm away as if burned, lips curling into a snarl he knows is from his days with Cam.

"Don't fucking touch me," he spits, the old anger rearing its ugly head to shove the heavy blanket of sorrow back down to where it belongs. "You just stay away from me, old man." Old man is said like a curse, his lips snapping it the same way they would as if he'd said nigger or spic. Sweeney draws his hand back with eyes older than the Earth itself, casting them down at the paper in his hands. He unrolls it slowly while Derek watches, and his eyes well up as he reads the first line.

"You're not the same person you once were," Sweeney chokes, reaching up to brush tears away. "Don't go back to that life, Derek. You can be a better person."

"Yeah," Derek sneers, taking a step towards the door. "Yeah, that's the same peace-and-love bullshit you've been feeding me since day one. And look where it got me, Sweeney! Look where it got my brother!"

His voice cracks on the last word and then he's running, running from the school and Sweeney's look of helplessness and the whole goddamn neighbourhood that'll think he's a pussy for crying. By the time he stops running, it's night and he has to crouch over with his hands on his knees to puke. Whether it's from the running or the grief he doesn't know, but one thing's for damn certain; he can't live this way anymore. Something's gotta give.

He goes to the little hovel that's now his home and a bed dirtier than the one he had in Chino. Flops into the bed and eyes the gun on the bedside stand. When he picks it up and puts it between his teeth, it's cold. By the time he takes it out and throws it across the room with a disgusted sob, it's stolen the warmth from his hands and lips. He curls into the fetal position and weeps himself to unconsciousness.

 

He gets a job, a little nine-to-five gig at a corner store where some spic is his boss. He figures the guy is an illegal immigrant based on how much he sweats when the cops come through for a couple of donuts, but he says nothing. He keeps the gun in the waistband of trousers that have become too loose on him, and he wears stuffy long-sleeved shirts to hide his tattoos. When he finally snaps, he doesn't want anyone seeing it coming. The only days he doesn't bring his gun are the days he goes to visit his parole officer.

("How are you doing, Derek?"

"Fine, sir."

"Been in any trouble lately?"

"No, sir."

"Planning to get in any?"

"...Hard to say.")

Cam's tried to contact him multiple times on getting retaliation for what happened, but he's been slippery. Take different routes home every day, trade one shitty place for another every couple of weeks. He does what he has to just to scrape by, nothing more, nothing less. He wants to kill someone. At this point, anyone will do.

Hate is baggage. Life's too short to be pissed off all of the time.

He has Danny's essay memorized, and certain lines pop into his head every now and then. That one in particular seems to come up a lot when he thinks about emptying his gun into the brains of his boss. Or picking any random black and unloading on them the way they did to his brother and father. That, and the memory of Lamont saying not to hurt any brothers. None of that makes the hurt go away; in fact, it probably makes things hurt a whole lot more. His younger brother was so much wiser than him at such a young age. He often wishes he himself had never existed to lead Danny down the rabbit hole that ended the way it did.

 

It's been three months of saving money when he finally pulls a hood up and finds himself standing outside his old home. He stuffs the envelope into his family's mailbox and hides around, waiting. Davina always checks the mail when she comes home from school, and sure enough, she shifts her books to one arm and gives the cold aluminum a little yank, letting the door drop open as she rummages around inside. She pulls out the envelope and gives the unmarked front a curious look-over, glancing up to scan the area. Derek pulls his hood lower and turns away. When he turns back, she's disappeared inside. He waits six seconds longer before leaving.

Now that he's given them enough to pay for the damage he caused to his room when he first got home that day of the shooting, he thinks it's time to move on. No one's pressuring him to use his pull to find information, so he hasn't seen Cam in ages. Does he need Cam anymore? Cam, Seth, Stacey, any of them?

No, probably not. It's a split-second decision for him to decide to act on his own. All the others will be shooting for the wrong reasons. They'll be shooting for the economy and the politics and the cultural shifts. He wants to shoot out of pure hatred. Loathing for going after his family when they should've shot him instead. He'll make them pay. He'll make them regret it.

 

He stands in front of the mirror with an electric shaver vibrating in his clenched fist. The Nazi sign stands out black against his alabaster skin, branding him for life. This is who he is. This is what he has to be. He's spent the time since Danny's death in a zombie-like stasis, and now it's time to act. The rest of his family won't be implicated since he hasn't seen them in ages. He only hopes that someone in prison will do him quick since he's too much of a coward to fucking do it himself.

He brings the shaver up, resting it against his forehead. He remembers his father telling him that black movements are just nigger bullshit. He remembers the curious look in Danny's impressionable eyes as he looked between Derek and their father. It was Derek's fault just as much as their father's for agreeing with the old man. His breaths are jagged as he presses the shaver into his forehead. Blood wells up as he digs it in, running down his face to drip crimson on his chest, where it runs over the Nazi symbol.

"Fuck," he whispers violently as he stares himself down. The eyes of a man who killed another man. The eyes of a man who let his younger brother take the fall for him. He draws the electric shaver away and slams his forehead against the mirror with a hoarse yell, and when that isn't enough he smashes it with his fists, rips it from the wall and flings it. He flings a bunch of other shit around too, then sinks down to the floor with the shaver still in his hand.

Blood smeared everywhere on his body and around the room, he finally uses the shaver, hair floating to land softly on the ground at his feet.

 

"Mr. Vinyard," his boss says in that thick accent, eyes wide as he takes in Derek's appearance. "You have shaved."

Derek reaches up and rubs a hand along his now-hairless chin, nodding. He doesn't feel like himself anymore; it's like he's floating outside his own body where nothing can touch him. The last time he felt like this was in the prison hospital, staring blankly at the walls boxing him into a place that had violated every last piece of him.

"I needed a change," he hears himself say, and his boss bobs his head in a nervous sort-of nod. He knows why his boss is terrified of him; he knows what his eyes have looked like the past few months when he's looked at anyone who isn't white. He thinks of the gun always on him, feels it pressing into the base of his spine. He lowers his hands and his boss's eyes follow them in fear.

He sticks them in his pocket. He's not ready yet.

His boss reaches up and tentatively pats his shoulder.

"I like it. Very... pro... prof..."

"Professional," Derek finishes in a dead tone. His boss nods, smiling.

"Yes. Professional."

 

The day he decides to go through with his plan, he meets his boss's family.

"Papá!" the little girl cries, black braids flying as she throws herself into the man's arms. The man's wife watches them both with an adoring smile, bringing her hands up to her chest as if the scene is beautiful to her. Derek has no idea what their story is; this is the first he's seen them, so it wouldn't surprise him if they'd been stuck in some other country waiting for the money to get to America. They're probably illegal too.

"Hey, Dad," another voice says in a bored tone, and for a second Derek's heart is in his throat. A moment later the feeling is replaced by nausea as a brown boy roughly Danny's age steps out from behind his mother and reaches out to take his father's hand. He pretends not to care, but Derek can see a tenderness in his eyes as his father pulls him in for a hug. For a moment he thinks of a different scene, one where his own father gets home from work and a young Davina screeches happily while Danny plays the part of a cool, indifferent boy because he's seen Derek do the same.

"Mr. Vinyard, this is my family," his boss says, voice thick with emotion. "I am pleased to introduce you to them. My loves, I would like you to meet the man who has helped me greatly these past few months. Without him, I was afraid the diablos would break in and ruin my store as they have done to others."

"Diablos?" Derek asks, his nausea growing.

"Those men who do not like immigrants. I am always so scared they will come for me, that those police officers will stand by and let them because they do not like us either. A white man such as yourself working the counter deters them. I am always scared you will leave because I cannot pay much, but you never do. I thank you from the bottom of my heart."

"As do I," his boss's wife says kindly as she wraps her arms around Derek and holds him tight. "It is because of you that my children's Papá has remained so healthy." She kisses Derek on the cheek while the two children watch him with huge, admiring eyes. He looks away, lips peeling back in a grimace. If they see how uncomfortable this is for him, they don't show it. The teen boy, in particular, is looking at Derek like he's some sort of godly protector.

"I need to stock some shelves." Derek makes his voice abrupt as he steps from the circle of the woman's arms and picks an aisle at random while his boss catches up with his family. Today was the day he was supposed to get the hate out of himself, even if he hadn't been able to shave his head. He can't bring himself to do it, though. Not when there are children involved.

Two days later, he stops bringing the gun to work with him.

 

More months pass and Derek continues delivering what leftover money he has to his family. He makes sure to never get caught, only staying long enough to make sure Davina gets it. Those are the nights. The days are spent on his mindless job, in a tiny corner store hardly anyone ever visits.

He actually counts himself extremely lucky when he sees the first skinheads he ever has in the store. He knew this would catch up to him sooner or later; it always does. Cam had probably sent them out looking for him. They shove each other around in the aisle while his boss watches from the counter. After a moment, he comes and tugs on Derek's sleeve.

"Please can you take over the counter?" he whispers, casting a fearful glance towards where the guys are eyeing up chocolate bars. "I do not want them to see me. And if they take the chocolate, just let them. I only ask that they do not see me and hurt my store or family."

Derek pauses in the midst of setting a can of soup on a shelf, looking between his boss and the skinheads who are little more than boys. They're fourteen, fifteen at most. His boss is in his late forties.

He nods.

His boss goes to the back to hide while Derek takes over the counter, watching the skinheads laugh loudly and begin shoving candy bars in their pockets. He hasn't felt much in a long time, but for some reason the sight makes him angry. Just one day ago, his boss's son had meticulously set those bars out because he wanted to help Derek. Though they never speak directly, he's always watching Derek with admiring curiosity.

"Hey, fuckheads," Derek calls casually, leaning on the counter. They look up in surprise with that defensive look kids get when they know they've done something wrong but won't admit it. "Put the goddamn bars back."

"The fuck do you care, man?" one of the guys, probably the braver of the two, asks.

"Is it the bars you're here for or me?" Derek wonders aloud as he walks around the counter, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Why would we be here for some skinny ass white dude?"

Derek narrows his eyes, allowing some of the old heat he's been suppressing into his gaze. Maybe it's the thirty or forty pounds he's lost, the bags under his eyes, his hairless face, or a combination of all of those, but apparently they don't recognize him. Doesn't make a difference, anyhow. He lets a fierce smile come up on his lips and takes a step forward, showing them how crazy he really is.

"I said, Put. The. Fucking. Bars. Back."

The quiet kid swallows while the other one scowls, but he obeys nonetheless.

"Come on, Johnny. This shithole don't have anything we want," Mouth snaps, spinning on his heel and marching towards the door. Derek swallows back anger, curling his fists into his sides and letting them go. Except they don't just leave like good little soldiers. Mouth laughs and kicks at a statue of a dark-skinned Virgin Mary, one the boss's wife set out. The statue shatters all over the ground, and Derek's self-control shatters with it.

He's punching the kid so hard he can feel bones crunch, anger burning a hole through his soul. He hasn't taken this out on anyone in so long that he can't hold back despite the other kid trying to pull him off. He hears his shirt rip and feels it get pulled right from his back, but he doesn't care. All he wants is carnage.

"Mr. Vinyard! Mr. Vinyard!" someone calls desperately, and then larger arms are wrapped around him, pulling him off of the boy who pissed himself in fear. Now that the red tinge is gone from Derek's vision, he realizes that this kid is even younger than he originally thought. Sniffling and pissing himself, nose all mashed up in a way it's never coming back from.

"Come on, let's go," the other kid says desperately as he grabs his friend and drags him away. Derek wipes a bloody hand across his mouth, then fists his hands in his hair.

"Shit. Shit!

It hasn’t dimmed the anger in him at all. In fact, it’s only made things worse. He doesn’t want to feel like this anymore. He doesn’t want...

He notices his boss staring at him, open-mouthed. Behind him, his family is also coming out of the storage room where they’d been doing inventory. Except they’re not staring directly at his face. They’re staring at his chest, where he realizes the Nazi symbol has been exposed when his shirt was ripped off. He snatches his shirt off the ground and fumbles to get it back on while they silently take in the rest of his tattoos. The white power, the Nazi symbol, the D.O.C. tat.

The looks on their faces make him wish he had his gun as a way out. His boss’s son in particular looks devastated, absolutely betrayed. Derek doesn’t bother buttoning up his shirt as he takes a couple of steps back then turns and shoves into the air, suddenly feeling claustrophobic.

He never goes back to the corner store.

But sometimes, at night, he walks by and makes sure no one fucks with it. To his surprise, Cam doesn’t retaliate. It’s like Cam forgot he even exists.

 

He gets a new job at a waste management place that pays even less than the one at the corner store. It doesn’t matter; he doesn’t eat much and finds a place cheap enough to afford while still having cash left over. He shivers his nights out in the heatless room with only a threadbare blanket, then brings what money he has left to the mailbox. One night, when he’s ironing a shirt with an old thing with a handle too hot to touch, he catches sight of himself in the mirror.

The Nazi symbol is still there, taunting him. He reaches up and covers it with one hand like he did the morning of the shooting. Black still spills through his fingers. He lifts his hand away and shakes his head, remembering the look in his boss’s son’s eyes. He turns back to the iron and grabs the hot handle, hand shaking. He turns back to the mirror, draws in a deep breath, and shoves the iron over his skin.

He screams. Passes out.

Wakes up to find that the tattoo is still there, a black mess under skin mottled pink and red. He picks up the iron from where it’s burned a shape into the floor and does the same thing all over again.

He passes out six times before he’s burned the Nazi symbol, D.O.C. tattoo, and white power sign from his body. The pain is unimaginable, and the smell of burnt flesh makes him crawl to the toilet and heave his guts out. He leans his forehead against the cool porcelain, hugging the toilet as he breaks down sobbing for the first time in months. If he’d never had this shitty tattoo in the first place, if he’d burned it off before...

But ‘ifs’ don’t give him his brother back.

 

Two weeks later he’s flushed and feverish, babbling nonsense at work so that they have to send him home. He collapses into his room without shutting the door and passes out. He sees Danny in his dreams, Danny’s fingers gripping his arms and shaking him.

“It’s not worth it, Der,” Danny says, eyes searching Derek’s for some sort of understanding. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

When Derek wakes up, it’s with tears in his eyes. A black nurse is jotting something down over him, and she looks up when she realizes he’s awake.

“Well hi,” she says with a small smile, all friendly features on her dark skin. Derek thinks she wouldn’t be looking at him that way if she knew who he was. What he’s done. “Mr. John Doe. Your neighbours didn’t know who you were and you had no I.D. on you when you were brought in. Do you know your name?”

“Vinyard,” he croaks, rolling his eyes to the ceiling. “Derek Vinyard.”

“Fantastic! I’m your nurse this evening, my name is Asya. I’ll inform your family - ”

“No!” Derek struggles to sit up against pain that threatens to knock him down again. The nurse rests a gentle hand on his shoulder, easing him back into bed.

“Relax, Mr. Vinyard, please! I won’t call them if you don’t want me to. I’m just concerned, is all. These burn wounds that got all infected and made you sick look self-inflicted. Did you harm yourself, Mr. Vinyard?”

“Had to burn them off,” he mutters, flopping back against the bed and turning his head away. He hates that he’s fucking crying again, but this whole environment is reminding him of the last time he was in a hospital. Sometimes his body still feels that old ache, one that makes him limp and feel like he’s nothing, nothing, nothing again. He brings his arm up to his eyes and draws in a shuddering breath.

“Burn what off?” the nurse asks, and the kindness in her voice makes him hate himself. He draws his arm away from his eyes and glares at her through his tears.

“I was a Nazi skinhead bastard,” he spits, wanting to make her flinch. “Haven’t you heard my name in the papers? I killed two niggers, curb stomped one of their fucking faces in and did hard time in prison. I had the evidence tattooed all over this body, that I killed niggers and I enjoyed it. Is that what you want to hear? Huh?”

He still hates everyone, deep down. Most of all himself. The word nigger is cruel and he usually avoids it now, but he wants this woman in front of him to understand what he is. A fucking monster. The kind that beats kids, kills brothers, ruins families. No one should show him a single bit of kindness ever again.

“Does that upset you?” she asks softly, holding the chart to her chest. There’s no malice or judgement in her expression, and the words he’s spoken seem to have had no effect whatsoever. “Did you hurt yourself because you think you deserved it?”

“Of course not. I would do it all over again. I would kill every last one of you and shit on your graves if I could,” he growls, still trying to get a rise out of her. She nods, no longer friendly. If he can make his own mother hate him, he can sure as hell get some black nurse to hate him. Even if he no longer thinks skin colour is the big issue at all, because the guy who shot Danny - no. He wouldn’t think about the guy who shot Danny. Not ever, otherwise he’d fuck with gangs and accidentally drag his family into it.

“Then why would you burn your tattoos off?” she questions, waiting patiently for an answer. How can she not hate him enough to try smothering him with a pillow already?

“Get out,” he answers back harshly, closing his eyes. “Get the fuck out.”

He waits until he hears her leave, then lets the tears leak from his eyes.

 

The infection is a bad one, apparently. They have to keep an IV of antibiotics and fluids going so he stays hydrated and it doesn’t get worse, which means he has to stay in the hospital longer than he likes. The nurse comes in every night to check on him, the only black nurse he’s seen so far, and she’s only one who checks on him so much. The other nurses seem to prefer interacting with his bitter self as little as possible.

“How are you feeling tonight?”

It’s the third night in the row she’s spoken to him, and he can finally no longer stand staying silent while she shoots question after question at him as if she still expects an answer.

“Why are you still talking to me? I told you - ”

“Do you know what being a health care provider means?” she half-whispers as she reaches up to check his IV bag. “Whether you’re a doctor, a registered nurse, a practical nurse, or anything, we vow to treat every patient the same. Black, white, Hispanic. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim. Mayor, worker, criminal. Everyone’s a human being, and that’s how we treat them. Even if you have different beliefs, you’re still human.”

“I’m not,” he answers, looking straight ahead.

“I heard about your younger brother,” the nurse says instead of arguing with him. It’s possibly the one thing she can say to make him speechless at this point. His eyes prickle angrily as he continues watching the ceiling. “I’m sorry.”

“So is he,” Derek chokes, covering his face. “So is he.”

 

Three days later, when he checks out of the hospital, it’s Asya’s day off. He leaves her a note.

Asya:

I know I kept referring to you as ‘nurse,’ but I do know your name. I think about what you said pretty often. I used to believe there was a way for us to treat each other equal too, but when my brother was killed I lost that hope. I’m not angry at people for being non-white or belonging to a different religion. I’ve realized that the statistics I used to go on about were because there’s more going on than meets the eye. Discrimination is real; I know because I’ve done it.

The reason I keep behaving like a fucking asshole towards anyone different has nothing to do with being a skinhead anymore. It’s because I lost hope when I lost Danny. I realized that this whole thing between races is some sort of circle that can probably never be broken. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Me not going after the fucker who shot my brother really isn’t going to change that circle in the grand scheme of things. There will always be sides, and those sides will always fight each other.

You’re probably wondering why I’m writing this letter, then. If I think it’s all hopeless, why write just to tell you that? I don’t really know myself. I guess I just wanted you to know that I don’t personally hate you for who or what you are. You’re a good nurse, and I’m sure you still would be no matter where you came from. I know it’s hypocritical to say this, but I hope you don’t give up hope. If everyone were like you, things could be different.

But they aren’t.

And I’m sorry about that.

Sincerely,

Derek Vinyard

 

He goes back to his job at the waste plant, grimly toiling through the day in solitude. Every week on a Tuesday he picks his way down the street to his old place to drop off money. Goes back to his new place and counts the scars on his body, reminding himself every day that he deserves so many more. It feels strange that no one bothers him, but he’s beginning to realize that he’s not as important as he once thought. He’s just a single ant in a network full of them. As long as he keeps his head down, he can blend in and no one will care. Sometimes it feels like his life is unfairly easy.

One cloudy Tuesday afternoon when he’s slipping money into the mailbox, he’s finally caught. Fingers wrap around his arm, making him jump back defensively with his fist drawn back. He drops it when he realizes it’s Davina, her eyes filled with tears as she reaches up and takes his face in both hands.

“Derek?” she asks as if she doesn’t know who he is. He nods, not trusting his voice. She lets go of his face to pull him into a fierce hug, standing on her toes and burying her face in his neck.

“You were always gone before I got home, but I knew it was you. We all knew. Ally’s been asking when you’re coming home and Mom keeps saying ‘Soon.’ She didn’t mean what she said, Der. Please come home.”

“Can’t,” Derek answers into his sister’s hair, bile rising in his throat. “I’m not good enough for this family, Davi. I fucked everything up. I can’t come back now.”

“We need you,” she pleads, stepping back and searching his eyes. “Not your money. You. Mom can’t take care of herself anymore, Ally needs someone to look after her, and if this keeps up I won’t be able to go to school anymore. And Danny - ” Davina closes her eyes, pain etched into lines that shouldn’t be on the face of someone so young. “He’d want us to all be a family. He’d know that you’d look after us.”

“Tell you what,” Derek says softly, brushing the hair back from her face. “If I can make us enough money, I’ll take you all out of here. Then we can live together again, when there’s not people who could still want to hurt me by hurting you. Sound like a plan?”

“Sounds like bullshit.”

Derek nods and hugs her again before stepping away. He levels a finger at her, making his voice stern.

“Stay in school, Davi. I’ll get more money to you so you can hire a homecare nurse or something.”

“If you walk away...” Davina’s voice is trembling, unusually high as she tries to hold back emotions. “We won’t accept your money any longer. You come home, Derek Vinyard.”

Derek keeps walking.

 

It’s the anniversary of Danny’s death and Derek is sitting on his grave, legs pulled up to his chest. He watched his family filter in and cry, hugging each other for support as they talked to Danny. He only stepped out from a copse of trees after they left, and he really wishes he had some sort of alcohol to pour into the ground and then drink. Not that they’d liked drinking much, but something ceremonial would be nice.

“I’m still here.” Derek reaches out and lays a hand atop the cool gray stone. “Don’t really know why. I still get angry all the time, except instead of taking it out on coloured people I take it out on a punching bag I got.”

He lets his hand drop away, tucking it into his armpit as a cold wind picks up.

“Mom’s got a boyfriend now. He looks after her and the family, and I’m happy for them, I guess. Would be better if you were here talking to my grave with them instead of me here alone. I know you’d make it, kid.”

His throat closes up and he lays down, right there on the grass.

“I’m sorry,” he croaks. He closes his eyes to rest briefly and ends up falling asleep. Next thing he knows, hands are rousing him from his sleep and he bolts out of a nightmare where the hands from the shower are holding him down while he shrieks for them to stop. He leaps back so quick his spine hits the gravestone behind him, fists raised in a pathetic defense.

“It’s me, Derek,” a warm, rich voice soothes, and he lowers his hand to find Sweeney standing over him wearing an overcoat and an expression full of sorrow.

Derek clears his throat twice as he gets to his feet, jaw clenching stubbornly as he glares his former teacher down.

“What do you want?” he grits out, unable to look at Sweeney without being reminded of Danny.

“I was here to visit Danny. I woke you up because you seemed to be having a nightmare. You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to.”

Derek shrugs one shoulder indifferently, crossing his arms against the cold.

“Whatever. I don’t really give a shit if you talk or not.”

Sweeney lets out a long, deep sigh, then peers at Derek with a hesitant expression.

“Our class is reading a book on racism this semester. Would you be interested in being a guest speaker?”

“What?” Derek wonders if he heard right. Of all people, he isn’t someone who should be making a speech on racism. Not when he’s spent half his life perpetuating it.

“I think it would be good for some of those kids to hear your perspective on things. We’ve been having issues with fighting between gang members and people from your old group. I think that you could really make a difference by talking to them. Help young people who are going down the same path as you and your brother.”

“Listen here,” Derek growls, stepping forward too fast for Sweeney to react and grabbing the older man by his fancy black overcoat. “I don’t know what kind of bullshit game you’re playing with me, but you’d better stop right now. You think some former neo-Nazi blathering on about stuff no one cares about or is even going to listen to will help stop things like what happened to Danny? You make me sick. This has to be some kind of disgusting joke. I don’t know what sort of redemption mission you’re on, but leave me out of it. I’m tired of all this.”

He releases Sweeney and draws in a deep breath to calm himself, straightening his own jacket before striding away from Danny’s grave. He can feel Sweeney’s eyes on him but he doesn’t turn around.

“You influenced half the people in the D.O.C. to become what they are!” Sweeney calls after him. “I think they’ll listen. Next Monday at two is when I can fit you in!”

Derek flips him the bird. Fucking Sweeney.

 

Despite everything within him saying not to do it, he finds himself at the school on Monday. He stands outside of it, staring at the doors he’d run through to get to Danny’s body. If he reaches, he can still find the grief as raw as if it had been yesterday. It’s festering in the bottom of his gut, ugly roots spreading to the rest of his body to make him ache. This is a bad idea.

He mounts the steps anyway.

He can tell Sweeney’s surprised when he knocks, and he makes a contemptuous snort at the shit on the chalkboard while Sweeney leads him into the classroom and introduces him. At the sound of his name, the class breaks into murmurs. All of a sudden half of them are looking at him like he’s a god while the other half think he’s the devil. A diablo.

To stall for time, he erases everything on the blackboard and writes ‘racism’ in messy handwriting. He hasn’t prepared for this, doesn’t even know why he bothered coming. Except he does; when he turns back he swears he can see Danny’s eyes reflected in half of the boys there. Eager to please, proud, brash. Thinking they’ll live forever when their life could end at any minute.

“Any questions?” Derek asks when his mind blanks out. May as well start there.

“What’d it feel like to curb-stomp a nigger?” a kid calls out from the back. Half the class snickers while the other half glares, and the tension in the room is so thick Derek could cut it with a knife.

“You gonna shave your head again?”

“Did you really knock Cam out?”

“How was prison?”

“Did you drop the soap?”

“That is enough!” Sweeney roars, standing from where he’s been sitting at the back of the class. Derek’s face has gone all hot at the questions, and he tries his best to shove his anger away before it wraps its fingers around his neck and chokes him. “If you can’t be serious, there’ll be no more guest speakers.”

“It’s fine,” Derek surprises everybody, including himself, by saying. “They want to know. So I’ll tell them.

“First, curb-stomping someone feels just like what you’d imagine it to.” Some kids are nodding with sly looks at each other. “You can feel the crunch of bone under your boot, the tearing of skin, the twitching as the life leaves someone’s body. It’s not a pleasant feeling, either. Every time I think about it, I feel nauseous. I killed a man by stepping on him, and it’s all I can think about now with every step I take. How many steps do you take in a day? Imagine being reminded of death with every step you took. You’re heading down to the mall with your girl, but you’re too focused on death to think about whatever movie you’re watching. You’re working, but every time you move across a room all you can think about is how you killed a man that could’ve been a co-worker’s son. You’re heading to school, and you count the amount of times you put your foot down and think ‘What if someday someone curb-stomps my mother?’”

The smiles disappear, replaced by a lot of people looking slightly pale.

“I’m not going to shave my head again, no. Because all that skinhead stuff was bullshit. That was why I knocked Cam out; he manipulated me into finding lonely, impressionable young people and pretending that their problems were all caused by anyone other than themselves. When something bad happens, you look for someone else to blame because blaming yourself hurts too goddamn much. I know Danny’s death is my fault, and do you know how many times I’ve put a gun between my teeth and pussied out at the last second? If I could pin the blame on anyone else, I’d love to. I’d love to say that it’s the fault of the guy who shot him. But I’m not a fucking idiot. And someone once told me that blame isn’t the issue, anyway. Someone wise told me the question is whether or not anything you’ve done has made your life better.”

He pauses, looking at Sweeney, who’s gazing steadily back at him as if urging him on.

“You wanna know about prison? About dropping the soap? Lemme tell you about that, too.” He swallows, wanting to drop his eyes but forcing himself to look every single student in the face. “When guys like me go to prison, where a bunch of blacks have spent their lives fending off whites, we're the niggers. I spent every day looking over my shoulder, waiting for death. Then I met with some other white guys like me and they gave me protection. But guess what? They didn't get protection by acting stupid and hating everyone. They allied themselves with the Hispanics and blacks the first chance they got. I thought that made them fucking jokes, you know? I turned my back on them like the arrogant shit I was, and the blacks had the chance to kill me. You know what happened?"

Sweeney is looking at the ground now, rubbing sweat from his upper lip with a grimace as if the memory is hurting him. Derek looks out the window, blood beading where his nails carve half-moons into his palms.

"The blacks didn't kill me. It was the white guys who took it upon themselves to teach me a lesson. Everyone says don't drop the soap, but when someone has a little cash and some sway, it doesn't matter whether you drop the soap or not. I don't know how many guys were in the shower holding me down. I know there was only one who..." He shakes his head, his voice cracking. "Had to get some stitches for that. They tell you at the hospital that the outside will heal, but what they don't tell you is that the inside won't. What they don't tell you is that it doesn't matter how many times you shower, or how long it is before the stitches come out. Because you can always feel what happened to you; it's always there with you when someone touches you."

Derek stops talking, sniffing loudly as he sets his hands on his hips and glares at the ground. In his mind, there are drops of blood on it. Little stains slowly spreading across the white that it doesn't seem the water can ever wash away.

"I lived, though. And it wasn't because I crawled back to those skinheads like a dog begging for scraps. The one and only reason that I made it out is because some African-American man who'd gone to jail for too many years for something he didn't do put his ass on the line for me. Me, some neo-Nazi prick who was doing less time than him for killing a man. Why'd he do it? To this day, the only reason I can figure is because he liked me. Saw me as a friend after we spent the days folding laundry. If a black saved my life for something that trivial and a white violated me for something equally as trivial... What does that say? Huh?"

None of the kids answer when Derek finally looks up. Some of them are staring blankly at their desks while others are watching him intently, not a single hint of humour in their faces. There's no admiration now, but there's also no more hate. Some of them even look slightly ashamed, shifting their feet uncomfortably.

"What about Danny?" a kid asks tentatively, someone young enough to have maybe shared a class with his brother. Derek sniffs again, running the back of his hand over his nose. "He was shot by - "

"Another human being. He was killed like I killed that guy outside my house, like a guy similar to that killed my father. Like a guy similar to my father once strung up another guy, and it goes on and on and on. If we don't stop it, where's it gonna end? Sure, you might think the blacks should end it, that maybe they started it, but who gives a shit who started it? We're all fucking human! If humans don't stand up for each other, no one will! That's why Danny died. Because no one - not me, not Cam, not the kid who shot my brother, not a single one of you - has stopped to think that maybe this shit's all pointless. So what if you're black? So what if you're Hispanic? If you're Caucasian? We're all American, aren't we? This place belongs to us all. What if Sweeney only taught blacks? What if the guys at the corner stores didn't sell to people who looked different? What if the people at the hospital didn't treat because of what we looked like? Jesus Christ, how could I have been so stupid?"

Now Derek is crying openly, his teeth chattering together as he thinks of everything that's happened. He's let himself mourn Danny a little throughout the past year, but he's never let himself mourn the rest of it. He sinks to his knees in front of the classroom, unable to stop the torrent now that's it come. He sees Sweeney get up from his peripheral but he doesn't look up as he rocks back and forth, clutching his stomach. It hurts to breathe and his vision swims with tears.

"I'm so sorry," Sweeney murmurs as he crouches down and wraps an arm around Derek's shoulders. "I'm sorry, Derek."

Derek looks up with bloodshot eyes, glaring at every single person in the classroom whose eyes are now riveted on the scene.

"Don't you dare make the mistakes I did," he spits vehemently, voice trembling. "Because this is where it'll get you. This is where it'll get all of you."

He forces himself to his feet and Sweeney gently guides him out of the office, shutting the door with a quiet click.

"I shouldn't have asked - "

"Do you think I got through to them?" Derek asks, leaning against the wall for support. "Do you think any of them will stop?"

"I don't know," Sweeney answers quietly, searching Derek's face. "I don't know what the future holds for any of them, but they heard you. They heard you, Derek."

 

Derek quits his job at waste management a week later. The night he quits, he walks the dangerous path to the hospital he stayed at before, and not a single person glances his way. It's started to snow, coating the dirt in a fine layer of white so that this part of the city looks clean for once. When he enters the sliding doors, he stamps his feet and blows in his hands to warm them with his breath. The nurse's station is just as he remembers it, a plump woman with lipstick redder than the candies on the desk clacking at her keyboard.

"Excuse me, ma'am," Derek calls, and for the first time the 'ma'am' isn't said with scorn or sarcasm. "I was wondering if Asya is working tonight."

The nurse doesn't have time to respond before Derek hears a surprised, "Mr. Vinyard?"

He turns to find Asya, looking just as he remembered her - healthy, friendly, and... pretty. He hadn't let himself think it last time because it felt like a betrayal thinking of a dark-skinned girl as pretty. Something conditioned into him years ago when his father had clapped him in the back of the head for glancing at a Spanish woman the wrong way. He figures it doesn't matter now, not when he's realized that there are a whole lot of people who couldn't care less whom Derek Vinyard finds pretty or not.

"Good evening," he greets mildly, trying out his polite voice. It still sounds gruff to him. "I was wondering... Last time I was here it seemed like you were understaffed. I thought I could help out, do a little good. I'm not asking for any money, but - "

"We can't let you volunteer due to legal issues," Asya says carefully, tapping neatly trimmed nails along the clipboard in her hands. He waits for more but when she says nothing else, he nods and turns to leave. If he's not wanted, there's no point in staying.

 "Mr. Vinyard!" Derek casts a glance over his shoulder to where Asya is working her lower lip between her teeth. "I've heard there's an opening in janitorial services. You'll want to talk to the floor manager, room 201 B."

"Thank you, Asya."

"...You're welcome."

 

The money he makes as a janitor is better than he's made anywhere else, though he only gets the job when the people ahead of him drop out because the work is too tough. Having a criminal record makes it hard to get hired, it seems.

He works all night on laundry and cleaning the same floors a hundred times, but he never complains. He starts alternating the times he drops money off to his family so that Davina won't catch him, and he barely sees the sun as the season rounds to winter. There are tons of car accidents when the roads start to get slippery, tons of work cleaning up rooms people come and go in every night. He sees Asya often, though they rarely exchange more than a cursory greeting. He wants to ask her if she still has hope. He doesn't.

It's nearly Christmas Eve when Davina and his mother bolt into the emergency room at three in the morning. They have Ally between them, her lips looking blue as Doris screams for medical help. Derek drops his mop to bolt to their sides, fear icing his soul over as he scoops his younger sister from Davina's exhausted arms.

"We need help!" he yells, and Asya is there a second later with a stretcher, ordering him to lay Ally out. She issues a rapid-fire set of questions to Doris and Davina as Derek listens, resisting the urge to start breaking things. Apparently Ally was stung by a wasp that's been buzzing around the house for days. Nobody thought anything of it until she started choking and then passed out. Doris is sobbing, cursing the fact that they never got around to getting rid of the wasp nest in the attic, cursing the fact that she'd thought wasps hibernated in the winter even in houses. Never mind that she didn't know that Ally is allergic. Asya whisks Ally away and Derek is left with the two girls.

"I can't lose another one," Doris keens as she sinks to the floor. "Not another one of my babies."

Davina is crying and hugging her, none of them noticing that Derek is standing there feeling drained of everything. A freak accident couldn't take another Vinyard, not after all the shit they'd already lost.

"Mom," Derek half-whispers, and when Doris jerks her head up he flinches.

"Derek?" Her voice is soft and muted with tears as she tilts her head at him. When she throws herself towards him, he expects a flurry of blows or spittle flying in his face from the cursing. He can remember the pain in her eyes when she'd told him she regretted giving birth to him.

Instead, she collapses into his chest, internally folding in on herself as she sobs. Derek pulls himself together as Davina stares in shock, taking a step forward and wrapping his other arm around her. Then he has his mother and sister both sobbing onto him while he holds them tightly, wondering how he ever could've let go.

 

Two hours later, Asya comes out to where Davina and Doris are sleeping on Derek's shoulders, their cheeks streaked white with salt from dried tears.

"Mom, Dav," he murmurs gently, shaking them. Doris bolts awake, on her feet in seconds with her hands twisting into her blouse as she looks fearfully at Asya. Davina is slower to get up, looking like she's scared of the worst.

"She's going to be fine," Asya assures them, and they're back in Derek's arms, all three of them hugging as Doris sobs in relief. Over their heads, he can see Asya watching him curiously as if trying to figure something out. None of that matters now. What matters is that when they go to see Ally, the colour is back in her cheeks and she screeches happily, throwing her arms around Derek's neck with a big, sloppy kiss on the cheek. Somehow it brings more tears than he's had in hours.

 

Doris apparently broke up with her man, so she thinks they need a man in the house. It's different than when Davina asked him alone. Different now with three of the most beautiful women in his life looking at him like he needs to be a part of the family again. He tentatively agrees and finds that being back in the house is like slipping into a familiar pair of pants. It fits him in a way that none of the other stuff has, and the loneliness of the past months seems to dissipate like sun breaking the fog up.

Asya talks to him a little more after that night, too. She asks him out of the blue on a quiet night whether or not he still thinks it's all hopeless. He tells her that he's not ready to answer that question yet. She nods as if that's the only answer she could've ever wanted, and after that she's a little warmer. Derek starts thinking of her as the 'kind nurse' instead of the 'black nurse.' Starts thinking of his old boss as 'that family man with the small store' rather than 'the immigrant who owns the business.'

Sometimes he has small chats with patients when he's cleaning the floors of their rooms. He finds they all have interesting stories, regardless of who they are or where they came from. The old people, especially. They don't care about who's who in the world of crime and gangs. They tell him there's no point in hating anyone else when you have your own family to love.

When he sits at the breakfast table with Doris, Davina, and Ally and laughs for the first time in nearly a year, he agrees.

 

Sweeney comes knocking on Derek's day off like Derek knew he would. He's been expecting this visit because he knows Sweeney, knows that the teacher has so much more to give the world than grammatical knowledge.

"I was wondering," Sweeney says, staring into the bottom of a tea cup that's been empty for a while. They've talked until they ran out of things to talk about, both of them knowing what's coming next.

"What you said to my class changed things a little. Not everyone, but a couple of the guys have grown their hair back in and there's been a lot more racial mixing since then. It may not seem like much to you, but it's a start."

"Ask, Sweeney," Derek sighs, running a hand through his hair.

"Would you ever be interested in giving more speeches? I don't mean just to the classroom, either. I think more kids need to hear about what happened, and even some adults. I don't want to overstep and be like Cam, trying to convince you that you should go out and pick on the lonely, low self-esteem kids. I just think everyone needs to hear both sides of the story. The police as well. If you're up for it."

Derek looks outside to where the snow sparkles in the sun, the snowman Ally and Davina made smiling crookedly in the window so that the smile is what they see when they look outside.

"I am. Even if it changes just one mind, it's worth it. People need to know what they're doing when they start down this path. They need to know what they're giving up and what they're taking on. No kid should ever have to feel like that's the only way to live."

"Good, good," Sweeney breathes out as if relieved. There's a stack of paper in his hands, these ones a pristine white unlike the essay Derek handed in what feels like a hundred years ago. "There's one other thing, too. I want you to know that no one's expecting anything of you and refusing won't make you a bad person. You have every right."

Derek gives Sweeney his full attention, arching his eyebrows at the papers.

"I still go down to the prison to visit old students, as you know. These - " He sets the papers down on the table. "They're from Henry. He's been writing them since I gave him your brother's essay to read over. I told him I would give them to you when you're ready, and that there was no guarantee you'd read them."

"Henry," Derek says as he turns the papers towards him.

"Known at the school as Little Henry."

Oh. The kid who decided one morning that he was going to load a gun, stuff it in his pants, take it to school, and use it to shoot Danny in the middle of the boy's bathroom at the high school. Derek closes his eyes, resting his hands on the papers. He doesn't know whether to rip them up or draw them closer.

"I'll leave them with you." Sweeney gets up, fixing his suit. He pauses to reach out and lay a hand on Derek's shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. "Take as long as you need to make your decision."

 

"I think I have an answer for you," Derek murmurs one day as he works at a spot on the floor with a mop. Asya is charting at the desk, tapping her pen idly against the counter when she looks up. Derek doesn't stop mopping, intent on getting the black scuff mark off of the tile.

"About what?"

"Hope." The mark is slowly disappearing under his scrubbing, becoming less and less. "Whether or not it's all hopeless. I still don't think our generation will be able to change that quickly. There's a ton of kids out there taking the wrong path."

"I can agree with that," Asya admits cautiously, shutting her chart. "But what about in the future?"

The mark is finally gone as Derek straightens up, drawing in a deep breath and wiping the sweat from his brow. It's a lot of work, cleaning up dark spots that will probably reappear when new people step there tomorrow. Still, he'll be around every day to wipe those spots off.

"It'll take a while. More than decades, I'm willing to bet. Maybe even centuries. But... I have hope. For the future, I mean. Not everyone is a lost cause. Not yet."

Asya appraises him for a moment more, eyes unfathomable as they flicker for a second to where his sleeve just barely hides the burn scar from where his tattoo used to be.

"I think you're right," she agrees softly, a small smile touching her lips. "I like to think there's hope for every person, Derek Vinyard."

 

It's a Tuesday afternoon when Derek quietly opens the bottom drawer of his desk, removing a sheaf of papers he hasn't looked at yet. At first glimpse all he can see is a messy scrawl that's unreadable unless you look closer. Most people would start at the beginning of a stack of letters like this, but Derek flips to the very end to read the last lines.

If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.

Derek lets the papers float down on top of each other and starts reading from the beginning. It's nearing midnight when he finishes, and the first thing he does is go to the phone and punch in familiar numbers. It rings only once before Sweeney's voice answers on the other end, sounding as if he'd already been awake.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Sweeney? I was wondering if it would be possible to visit the prison tomorrow."

Silence. And then:

"Sure, if you'd like, Derek. Out of curiosity, may I ask why?"

Derek hesitates, looking towards Danny's room where the wall sits empty of any more Nazi propaganda or bullshit Hitler posters. Instead is a small poster Davina bought when Derek was working, sitting up above the desk Danny sat at to write his essay. Derek's eyes read the quote over once before he says it aloud, deciding that the man who said it will be his new role model since he's never really had a good one besides an English teacher who went above and beyond for him in a way even his own father never did.

"Because we must learn to live together as brothers or perish as fools, Mr. Sweeney. And I don't think perishing as fools should be an option. Not now. Not ever."