“I don’t want to kill you,” Russell says, backing away from the edge of the roof. And then, “I can’t kill you.”
Mireille turns to face him. “Oh - oh, of course. I didn’t mean that you should really… that would be an awful thing to ask someone to do!”
“Then why did you ask me to do it if you know that?” he asks before he thinks to do otherwise.
She flinches. “I… oh, Russell, I’ve done something awful to the person I love.”
“...Tell me about it,” Russell says.
So Mireille talks. She talks about how the love of her life was sick, and his wife only visited him a few times during his illness. She talks about how she was jealous of that woman, and intentionally withheld the man’s medicine so that it could be her and not his wife that was beside him in his final moments. She talks about no longer having any reason to live.
When she’s done, and looking like she’s about to cry, Russell says, quietly, “I still think you’re a good person.”
“Mostly,” he adds. “You were nice to me, and that didn’t have anything to do with this. And… I think you could probably find another reason to live, if you looked around enough. So… you can die if you decide to, but please don’t ask me to kill you?”
With tears still pricking at the corner of her eyes, Mireille says, “I won’t ask.”
“Father, I have sinned. And… I don’t know how to do this right, this is my first time,” Russell says.
“There is no ‘right’ way to seek repentance, and you’re doing well to come here at your age,” says the priest. “Don’t worry.”
Russell nods, and then remembers that the priest can’t see him. He takes a deep breath. “My father beat me again yesterday, and I wanted him to die. My mother was busy sleeping with some guy, and I wanted her to die too. Even if I asked them to stop nothing would change. Even if I went to the police nothing would change. I want these things to stop, but I don’t know what else I can do, and I want them both to die.”
There’s a pause. “In your position,” the priest says, gently, “those thoughts are only human.”
“So I’m not a bad child?” Russell asks.
“No, you’re not. You’re not a bad child, and God loves you,” the priest answers with complete assurance.
“But I’m jealous of everyone else,” Russell says. “All of my other classmates… They don’t have to deal with this, and I hate them too.”
“That is also understandable,” the priest says, “but something you can do more about. Your classmates have their own troubles to deal with, most likely - you just don’t know what they are. Have you gotten to know any of them well?”
“...Not really,” Russell says.
“Then as your penance for your jealousy,” the priest says, “choose one of your classmates this week and make an effort to become friends with them.”
“Thank you, Father. I will do that.”
“Bless you, child.”
It’s Russell’s birthday, but it’s Gardenia’s birthday, too. Russell feels the pangs of envy deep inside his chest as he looks at the unopened birthday presents and the beautiful cake.
He looks over the crowd of partying classmates, then towards the balcony where the birthday girl herself has retreated for a little peace and quiet.
The priest said to make a friend.
He approaches her, and realizes after he gets her attention that he has no idea how to open a conversation. “My friend really likes you,” he says, after a moment.
“Really? Why doesn’t he tell me then?” Gardenia asks. She pouts a little. “If this is a mean joke, it’s not funny.”
“It’s not a joke,” he says. “Chris likes you a lot.”
“Chris…? But he’s never talked to me,” she says, turning back to the party. Chris is drooling over cake and none the wiser.
“Yeah, that’s…” Sorry, Chris, Russell thinks to himself. “I think he thinks you wouldn’t like him because he’s not as rich as you.”
“That’s dumb!” Gardenia says, hands on her hips. “There are lots of rich boys who are stuck-up and mean, and there are lots of boys who aren’t rich who are super nice. He should just talk to me and I’d probably like him a lot!”
Russell nods along. “Can you wait here for a second?”
“Huh? Oh - okay.”
He returns to the party, where he grabs onto Chris’ arm. “C’mon,” he says. “We’re going to talk to Gardenia.”
“Wh-” Chris turns scarlet. “H-hey, I can’t just talk to her alone like this-!”
But Russell has already dragged Chris all the way over to Gardenia. “Talk,” he says.
Chris rubs the back of his neck, turning even redder at Gardenia’s smile. “So, um… do you like… cooking?”
Gardenia beams at him. “I love cooking!”
The three of them spend a while talking, until it’s time for the birthday cake to be cut.
It’s the most delicious cake Russell’s ever had.
At the church youth party, Russell wallflowers. There are plenty of kids his age there, but none of them are Gardenia or Chris, and he’s not sure he’s up to making friends again tonight.
After the party is over, he lingers behind, and asks the priest’s sister, “Can I help you clean up?”
“Huh? Oh, sure. It’ll be quicker with two people doing it.” She smiles a little at him. “My name’s Cody. Can you recycle all the empty soda cans?”
While they’re cleaning, Cody asks, “Did you have fun at the party?”
He thinks about it. “I didn’t talk to anyone, because I didn’t know anyone there. ...But next time I’ll talk to people. Because when the priest told me to talk to someone, it was a really good idea.”
“Dogma knows his stuff when it comes to penances,” she replies. “If you don’t know how to talk to any of the kids your age next time, you can always ask me, okay? I know everyone here, and I know most of them are just like you: they were really shy until they got to know people.”
“Shy…” Russell guesses that’s what he is. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” Cody says.
Cleaning goes a lot faster than Russell expected. He’s almost disappointed.
“Do you have medicine that makes bruises heal faster?” Russell asks. Mireille has been sneaking him cold compresses, as usual, but he would like to burden her a little less.
“For bruises, I have arnica ointment.” Kantera fetches something from one of the middle shelves and hands it to Russell. “Apply this to the bruise every day and it should fade more quickly.”
Russell nods. “How much does one container of this cost?”
“For you, no charge,” Kantera says, smiling.
“I can’t do that,” Russell says at once. “I have to pay normal price.”
“But you can’t afford to keep buying at my regular rates either, with how often you come here bruised,” Kantera says. Russell has no immediate argument. “Please accept it as a gift for a friend.”
“A friend…” Russell swallows around the lump in his throat. “...Can I at least pay you half price?”
Kantera sighs. “A quarter of the price, only if you really must.”
It’s a deal. After working out exact figures, Russell hands over the money and says, “You’re a really kind person, Kantera.”
“...Aha. I wonder about that,” Kantera says, with a smile Russell would recognize as sad even without the benefit of knowing Kantera personally.
“It’s true,” Russell says. “No matter what kind of person you were before, you’re a kind person to me. So… thank you.”
Kantera pauses for a moment, before his expression lightens. “You say the most interesting things. I should be the one thanking you, Russell.”
“The monkeys remind me of my dad,” Russell says, almost inaudible over the monkeys’ screeching. “They’re so loud.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Tabasa asks, eyebrows raised.
Russell doesn’t hesitate: “Bad.”
Tabasa doesn’t seem to know what to do with that, as he rubs the back of his neck. “Well... We’ve got a lot of other animals in the zoo, too. Maybe you’d like the fish exhibit better? They’re definitely way quieter.”
Russell shakes his head. “I want to keep seeing you, though.”
“...I’ll tell you what, how about we meet up on one of the days I’m not working. Even though I’m just with the monkeys right now, I can tell you about the rest of the zoo, easy.” Tabasa gives Russell a smile. “They’re a lot more interesting to look at than me, I promise.”
Interesting isn’t the right word, Russell thinks but doesn’t say, because his eyes light up when he fully processes what Tabasa is offering. “You mean it?”
“‘Course I mean it,” Tabasa replies. “Don’t let these guys ruin a good experience for you.”
He means the monkeys, but Russell thinks of his dad, and nods.
The first time Russell’s brought to the police for walking around at night and Yumi mentions bringing him home, his eyes go wide and he shakes his head so quickly that it hurts.
Yumi blinks at him. “Somethin’ up with your home, kid?”
If he tells the police, nothing will change, or Dad will hurt him. Dad said so a hundred times in the past. Russell doesn’t want to be hurt. All these people that he’s met would be sad if he were hurt, so Russell can’t tell the police.
“Wanna tell me what it is?”
A shake of the head.
“Alright,” Yumi says with a sigh. “But you ever change your mind, you can tell me right away, okay?”
“...You’re not going to pry?” Russell asks. “I thought police were supposed to pry.”
“You don’t wanna tell me, so you’re not gonna tell me, and pryin’s just gonna make things worse,” she replies. “You’re not under interrogation. I’m worried about you, but you can tell me when you’re good ‘n ready.”
He swallows. He thinks of beer bottles, and discarded clothes, and living in the bathroom. Things won’t change. They won’t change ever.
Then he thinks of cold compresses, the church and its confessionals, delicious cooking, herbal medicine, the fish exhibit of the zoo.
“...My father, he…”