Sunday, 24 October 2021

F Fic, Non-fic

Redemption & Rehab

redemptionby Mary Leoson

Bus driver Rhonda Williams pressed the brakes, slowing down for the figure at the next stop, but her thoughts were not on the job. She knew she was a good woman—or at least most of the time she had been. Her faith in the Lord was unwavering, but at times it was all that carried her through. For a woman of 62, she had seen far too much for one lifetime. But this past summer had been more than overwhelming. She could still hear the elevated voices down the street, taunting her granddaughter to fight. And in a neighborhood like theirs it was the kind of brawl that led to blood.


She leaned forward to open the bus doors, looking up nonchalantly at the man who entered. His silhouette was disheveled, with unkempt locks and facial hair that had not been groomed in quite some time. His clothes were a blend of misfits, from oversized and haggard trousers, to brightly colored flannel sleeves, and an old-style hat that belonged on an elderly gentlemen. Surely a homeless man, or close to it. Rhonda held her breath, expecting a stench of urine or vomit, or some other unpleasant odor to waft in. But as he neared her, she felt a curious warmth overtake her; he paused, simply meeting her gaze. Instantly she became enchanted by the penetrating blue eyes that peered out from beneath heavy brows. Time seemed to pause as they drew her in, holding her captive.


Images of that night, three months ago, ran through her mind like a scripted nightmare. The screams from the corner grew louder and more anxious as she neared, her feet pounding the wet pavement as fast as they could carry her sturdy frame. “Keisha! Keisha! Baby don’t!” she yelled, amid huffs and puffs. The jeers grew louder, egging the girls on as if they were in a ring. Then suddenly shouts turned to screams and the crowd began to disperse. Terror filled Rhonda’s heart as she caught sight of a body on the ground.


Rhonda descended upon the scene like a hawk, tearing at anyone in her way. Then she froze. Keisha, her baby girl, lay slumped on the street, holding her stomach and groaning. The young girl looked up to meet the dark eyes of her beloved grandmother, reaching out with arms covered in red.


Rhonda slid toward the teenager, taking her in her arms, just as she had when Keisha was a newborn. “Call 9-1-1!” she screamed in a strained voice, rocking the child back and forth, back and forth.


“I love you, Gigi,” whispered the girl. “Guess I should have stayed home.” Her breath faltered, the blood gushed with no pause. A dirty knife lay on the ground beside them.


“It’s ok, baby, it’s gonna be ok,” Rhonda spat through labored gasps. Her gaze darted around, seeing shadows running away and flashing lights approaching. As Keisha’s eyes grew heavy, Rhonda let out a scream that she thought might shatter her very skull. But it didn’t. It didn’t change a thing.


Rhonda took a deep breath as the memories flooded her, the pain filling her chest until she thought it might spill over. It was what she sought to numb every night with several glasses of Tanqueray. But it never quite did—it only led her back to that scream, the one that would forever be etched in her mind as the last thing her granddaughter heard. The man’s blue eyes held hers intently, softly, as she began to cry.


“She will always be with you,” he said in a gentle voice. “It was not meant for her to stay. She was needed for something far more important.”


Rhonda’s eyes grew wide, as he passed her and headed down the aisle. She self-consciously wiped the tears from her face, caught off guard at her own show of emotion, and greatly confused by his words. Were these the ramblings of a crazy man, or had he just read her mind? She could not be sure, but thought she saw a soft white glow around him as she watched in the rearview mirror.


Brendan O’Donnell sat calmly with his cane resting by his side. Legally blind in both eyes, the elderly man’s vision was limited to blurred light and shadow, but his ears were sharp—sharper than most. He had been traveling on this same bus route every Monday through Friday for the last ten years and had heard many interesting things during that time, but none compared to this stranger randomly speaking to other passengers. He thought perhaps he was one of those New Age types convinced he was a prophet, or maybe a pothead, or perhaps a schizophrenic. In any case, he seemed docile enough, so the man was not concerned.


Being a retired police officer, he generally knew when there was cause for concern. Voices heightened, people shifted uncomfortably, and a certain feel in the air changed. He wasn’t one to believe in supernatural or psychic nonsense, but he had certainly learned to trust his instincts. They had saved his life numerous times. And despite what his wife told him each day when he went out to meet his buddies for lunch, he knew his trips would not be the death of him...which was why he was so startled when the light seemed to grow stronger as it moved toward him.



The more it neared him, the warmer he got. A humming sensation tingled his fingers, as if he’d had a few too many; he wondered momentarily if he was having a stroke. The scent of sweat wafted over him, and he could hear the quiet shuffling of tennis shoes down the aisle. Was this a person he was sensing? A person made of light?


As if caught in the face with a powerful wind, Brendan reached for his cane out of habit. The memories came strongly, like punch in the gut. His son’s face, so much like his own, was as clear as day in his mind’s eye. Their relationship had never been easy, not since Michael had reached preadolescence. But as he grew, the tension between them got worse—not better. Even in his 20’s, when most young people find a sense of maturity and responsibility, Michael was still struggling to come into his own. But that day—that day broke their bond forever.


“Who the hell do you think you are to tell me who I can love?” Michael looked at his father incredulously. “You racist jackass.”


“You shut your mouth, boy! You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Brendan.


“Oh, don’t I? Then you tell me what your problem with Lacey is and I’ll listen. You come up with one damn thing that is wrong with her other than her skin color,” he spat. He waited, challenging him with a glare.


Brendan shook his head, exasperated. He was no fan of the people from her neighborhood, but it didn’t have anything to do with the color of their skin. It had to do with their crime, their lack of respect for authority, and the insane amount of drugs that poured in and out of those streets.


“Michael, I’m sure she’s a good kid, but you don’t understand the neighborhood she comes from,” he pleaded. His anger was dissipating, but his fear was growing. What had happened to the little boy who used to hold his hand in the park? “This world does not treat mixed couples kindly, and God help you if you have children.”


Michael looked as if he had been slapped in the face. “Fine. Then don’t come to the wedding. You don’t deserve to be there if that’s what you think of her. And you won’t need to worry about our kids.”


He walked out of the door and slammed it behind him. Brendan was certain that it would blow over. Michael would come to see that he was right; Lacey would be out of his life in a few months... He couldn’t have been more wrong. There was nothing quite like the pain of having grandchildren out there and not knowing them. That was something he thought often, but rarely spoke of. He was stoic to a fault--- a stubborn Irishman... with a broken heart.



The urge to weep was so strong that he could not hold it in, and the light—so bright! Brendan squeezed his eyes shut, hearing the man’s clothing shift as he paused beside him. Even behind his lids the light burned. “Open your heart to him,” said a soft male voice. “Open your heart, and you will find room for them all.” The tears fell freely as the man continued past him; Brendan was glad for his blindness for at least he could remain oblivious to any stares.


Ava Ortiz had her head buried in a book but she had not read a word. At seventeen, she had already been accepted to Cleveland State University with a full scholarship and had a plan to earn her medical degree. The oldest of five, she had always been the responsible one-- the go-to babysitter, resident chore task master, and biology wiz. Her family could not be prouder of her. But then, they didn’t know her news.



The amount of shame she carried was almost unbearable. Her Catholic upbringing did not encourage talk of sex, and it most certainly did not condone premarital intercourse. She had never thought of herself as one who would become a pregnant teen, especially one who had been abandoned by the father. She had thought it was love, but her definition of intimacy was not the same as most boys at her school. The thought of her mother’s face if she found out was almost too much to bear. The shame was overwhelming, but it was secondary to the fear that gripped her from within.


Could she do this alone? Did she want to? She imagined what it would be like working a full-time job and coming home at the end of the day to a crying baby. She had always envisioned a husband by her side, a ring on her finger, and a house full of children. But parenting a baby by herself?


She saw his feet first—a tattered pair of black Converse shoes, with rips along the sides. They paused beside her seat for a moment; she glanced up to find a shabbily dressed man with warm eyes. Her mind was flooded with images, and her heart with emotion.


Suddenly, she was back in her home, having the same argument with her mother that occurred four months prior.


“But mama, it’s the prom! I have to go!” she pleaded, with tear-filled eyes. She had her dress, new shoes, a date—she simply had to say yes…


“No, you don’t,” she said firmly, her expression no-nonsense. She turned back to the dishes, rinsing the suds off of a coffee cup. “Going with this—boy—this was not what you told me before. I don’t know him, I don’t know his family. The answer is no, mija.”


“It’s because he’s white, isn’t it?” she said, almost under her breath.


Her mother took a breath and paused, then picked up a plate to scrub. “No, Ava, it’s because I don’t want you to end up like me.”


She knew what her mother meant. She had been pregnant with her older sister by the time she graduated high school, then married their father just after she turned 18. She wanted her children to have more choices and more secure finances before starting a family.


Ava could see her mother’s shoulders shaking, even though she could not hear her sobs over the water falling into kitchen sink. She got up from the table and stood beside her mother. Slowly she slid her arm around her mother’s waist and leaned her head upon her shoulder, as she so often used to when she was younger.


“Mama,” Ava said softly, “if I turned out like you, I would be very proud of myself.”


Her mother turned to embrace her, suds and all...


Ava’s mind swammed forward, taking a leap in time. She saw her baby. The little girl was beautiful-- her laughter light and full of love. In Ava’s mind’s eye, she transformed from a child into a young woman, with her own hopes and dreams. She would grow to be strong and she would need someone to teach her how. Ava saw a reflection of herself in a mirror, aged 20 years—confident, warm, and wise—just like her own mother. She wanted to become that woman.


The man’s eyes held hers. “The child you carry will be very special,” he said, in almost a whisper. “And you will teach her well.”


Father Sam, or at least that’s how he thought of himself even though he had officially been removed by the Catholic Church, did not notice the homeless man right away. Rather, his mind swam with the intensity of the last two hours. He knew the Bishop was angry with him for refusing to follow his directives, but he still could not believe what had transpired.


His faith had meant everything to him since he was a small boy. He had found solace in his parish’s large, beautiful church, with its marble columns and looming stained glass windows. He would often walk along the sides of the church, looking up at those colorful panes which told the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Yes, he had always loved the building itself, but knew that a Church was much more than a place to gather. Rather, it was the people who met there, looking for comfort, searching for inspiration, finding camaraderie among sinners seeking the right path.


As he grew into a young man, his charisma and compassion drew people to him. In his presence, they would find themselves speaking of their most private secrets and dilemmas. He tried his best to listen, provide guidance in line with the spiritual teachings, and offer unconditional love to those he encountered. By the time he graduated high school, he knew that his calling was to join the priesthood.


While in the seminary, Sam came to understand that even within the service of God, there was conflict. Some were judgmental of those who did not agree with their interpretations of the Bible. Others were fiercely loyal to the priesthood, sometimes to a detriment of those they were called to serve. And still others were ambitious, seeking the fastest way to rise among the ranks of their fellow clergymen.


But there were also those with whom he felt an incredible kinship—those who believed that people should be accepted for who they are, and guided lovingly by the messages of God. Yes, there were those who rejected judgment, holding firmly to the belief that it was God’s job alone. They were servants and messengers and Sam felt utterly at home with these kindred spirits.


After many years of serving in various parishes, Father Sam was given the task of leading a community downtown. He not only accepted the appointment eagerly, he immediately began to thrive. Under his direction the parish transformed from a group of strangers into a close-knit family. Sometimes he did things in an unconventional way, but he fostered a community that reflected faith and compassion.


Unfortunately, not everyone in the Diocese agreed with his ways. He had support for many years under one Bishop, but when another was reassigned to their area, he found himself in one confrontation upon another. Their disagreement came to a head when Father Sam was told to close his church. But, being a man of faith who answered to God and not man, he could not in good conscience abandon those who had come to trust him. So, he had given the parishioners a choice: join another nearby church, or remain together and find a new place to worship. While some did leave, most stood by his side, even under the threat of excommunication.


When the homeless man paused beside him, the clergyman was falling into despair, wondering how he would tell his congregation their fears had come to pass. Subtly, the quiet hum of peacefulness washed over him, and he fumbled with the rosary beads in his hands. When he felt the gentle pressure of the man’s hand upon his shoulder, Father Sam looked up. His face was familiar, though a name did not come to mind. A lump in his throat formed as he saw the soft glow around the man’s head, and the Bishop’s hurtful words rang in his ears.


“You dare to defy what you have been instructed to do, again and again. Need I remind you that you are a servant of God. He has placed me in the position to make these decisions. You will do as you are told. Or I will be forced to remove you from our tradition!” Father Sam jumped as the Bishop lunged at him, spitting his words out in anger, and slamming his hand down on the solid oak desk.


“Then do what you must. I cannot abandon them. They have chosen to stay together as a community and I will not leave them without a leader.” Father Sam swallowed hard. “I will not go against what my faith tells me to do.”




And with a word, he had been defrocked, stripped of the vestments that meant so much to him. The shock rivaled the painful pounding in his chest as the reality of what had just happened sank in…


Though the hand of the homeless man had only been on his shoulder for a moment, it was bizarrely hot. “Do not despair,” he offered. “Yours is the path of a true priest. May you continue to lead a life of service, for there are many who need your guidance.” They were only words, but they brought Father Sam the reassurance he so desperately needed in that moment.


The soldier watched as the homeless man made his way down the aisle, mumbling to himself. He did not appear to be a threat, but it was always a good idea to be on alert in the presence of the mentally ill. John Toby knew this all too well. In fact, it was something that had haunted him all his life, but never so densely as now.


Growing up, John was no stranger to stern discipline—at least that’s what his mother called it. Weekly beatings were commonplace in his household; he had the scars to prove it. As an adult his perspective had changed—he knew that she was not right in the head, and probably had not been since she was small. But a mental disorder was no excuse for breaking your child’s arm. Now he knew that there were millions of people who functioned with mental illness and did not harm their children.


In recent years, he had tried to find compassion and forgiveness for his mother, but it was an ongoing effort. The distance he had found with the army had helped—it had gotten him off of the reservation and empowered him to start a life of his own. He now understood the confusion that came with mental illness, for his own diagnosis of PTSD was something he managed daily.


He also knew more about the things she had been through at the hands of her own mother. His grandmother had been one of the unlucky Indian children sent to a boarding school for “re-education”, which not only required one to relinquish Native American customs and identity, it also consisted of various forms of gross mistreatment. These experiences were the seeds of what would become a community ravaged with drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual and physical abuse. Mental illness was just one more cruel twist in the evolution of the Toby family.


John’s eyes drifted out the window to two little boys riding their bicycles down the street, laughing as they raced, and he was reminded about his destination today. Private Spencer’s parents had asked to see him, as he was their son’s mentor in the Rangers. While he knew this would be a difficult visit, he was determined to keep it positive, to hopefully bring them some comfort and closure in the wake of their son’s death. He could still hear the echoes of his friend’s laughter if he listened hard enough.


John was torn from his thoughts by the sudden outburst of the child sitting in front of him. His muscles went rigid and his heart pumped fast; he could feel the adrenaline rush through his system. His service dog, Ralph, stood to attention quickly on the seat beside him, licking his face and calming his reaction. John fumbled with the pill bottle in his pocket and quickly popped a Xanax, then engaged in the breathing techniques his therapist had taught him. His hand rested on Ralph’s back, thankful for the dog’s presence.


But then amid the child’s screams, something bizarre happened. The homeless man stopped, placed his hands on the child’s head, and calmed him—instantaneously. John blinked, wondering if the soft glow around the man’s hands was a hallucination. As he turned to meet his eyes, the homeless man brought with him a calm that John had not experienced since before Spencer’s death. Calm, but also a rush of memories…


John’s feet pounded the Earth beneath him as they ran toward the Black Hawk helicopter in the distance. He gripped his weapon carefully, knowing they were closing in behind them. He was glad that Spencer was in front of him, for he thought of the Ranger as his little brother. Almost there, he thought, breathing hard.


The round from an AK-47 grazed his leg, throwing him off balance, and he landed with a thud. Despite the pain, he did what he was trained to do, quickly rolling over and returning fire. Before he knew it, Spencer was at his side, staying true to the code to not leave anyone behind. He helped him to his feet and placed his arm around his shoulders, helping to support his weight.


As they reached the helicopter, other soldiers grabbed John and pulled him to safety. But as they reached for Spencer, he was struck by several rounds. Though the threat was taken out by the door gunner shortly thereafter, it was not before they had claimed one of his brothers. He would never forget the sacrifice Spencer made, which literally saved his own life. The young man with the thick New Jersey accent, and laughter for days, deserved so much more than to have his life cut short.


John emerged from the memory slowly, feeling the weight of the guilt and sadness somehow lifting. It wasn’t gone—it would never be gone—but it was somehow lighter. “His spirit will live on in those who knew and loved him,” said the homeless man. “You will give them back a piece of his memory today.”


Doug Andrews sat at the back of the bus with his eyes cast downward. If he kept his eyes on the floor, the monsters might go away. He lifted his arm to his forehead, to wipe the sweat that threatened to fall. Taking deep breaths, he tried to calm his racing heart. This was not a good high. His “friends” had placed him on the first bus back to the east side, knowing they could not handle him in this state. But all Doug knew was that he was on his way home; he hoped it would be a quick trip.


Going from one hell to the next, with heaven somewhere in between—that seemed to be his existence as of late. Home had become a place of landmines, with his parents condemning his every move. Once he had been their golden child, who could do no wrong. Three years ago, he had gotten good grades, was a star athlete, and was a leader in his youth group ministry. But that was back in Dallas, where he fit in.


They had moved to a far eastern suburb of Cleveland in the middle of his sophomore year, and everything had changed. Everyone had their established groups of friends, their social niches, and no one was willing to take him in—until he met Julie. She had been his gateway into a hard-partying group, most over the age of 18. He could get his hands on anything, as long as he could pay for it.


At first it was a relief to be accepted—to have something to take the edge off of his anxiety. He only engaged in substance use on the weekends. But then he started cutting class, using during the week, and stealing from his parents. They had even gone so far as to ship him away to a church camp last summer, to see if he would change his ways, but it took him all of two hours to find out where to score some weed. After that he’d learned to act the part, feigning an interest in the church youth group and making up a list of “wholesome” friends that his parents might accept. What they didn’t know was that he never even attended one youth group meeting. It was all a cover for the dark world he had found. Getting high, in a variety of ways was his new “heaven”… anything else was hell.


The bus came to a stop and Doug glanced up to measure the timeline to his escape. He’d thought the monsters on the bus were bad, what had stepped on a few minutes ago was downright terrifying. Its head was a mass of snakes, like the medusa he had read about in mythology, and its skin glowed with an unnatural light. The creature slunk through the door and down the aisle slowly, bringing with it the sound of a thousand hisses at once, accompanied by a guttural growl.



Doug froze. He remembered the story of medusa well—he knew to avoid the demon’s eyes. But he could feel it drawing nearer and nearer, turning to each seated monster that lay between them. If he sat very still, perhaps the creature would not see him, would not want to peel his flesh with its razor-sharp teeth.


But it did not stop approaching, slowly, purposefully, as if it sensed his fear. And then it happened. Try as he might, Doug could not tear his eyes away from the creature. It held him like a magnet, somehow drawing him closer, though he was not moving at all. His heart raced faster, while a cold shiver traveled up his spine. His breathing was labored, coming in gasps. He needed to get out—now!


Jumping to his feet, Doug charged the demon, hitting it with his hands and pushing it back with all of his might. Startled, the creature stumbled backward, almost to the front of the bus. The other monsters turned to look at Doug, but they did not attack. No, he had to keep his concentration on their leader. It was blocking the door. He would not be kept prisoner in that bus! Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a knife and prepared to charge the demon once more.


Rhonda Williams, the bus driver, could barely believe her eyes as she watched the drama unfold in the rearview mirror. She had gone from an unexpected moment of deep emotion and spiritual insight to an adrenaline rush in less than sixty seconds. The homeless man careened toward her, falling onto the floor, with the strung-out teenager standing before him, ready to strike again. As she turned to object to this ridiculous violent outburst, her vision caught the glint of a knife in the kid’s hand. She froze, reminded of that fateful night when she had lost her granddaughter to a similar instrument.


The teen moved forward slowly, almost snarling at the other passengers on the bus as he passed by them. The service dog jumped to attention as he passed the soldier, barking and growling. The mother in the back shielded her little boy against the window, the priest tried his best to talk the teen down, to no avail, and the small Hispanic girl hid in her seat, curiously covering her stomach. But the teen took no notice; his eyes were fixed on the homeless man. He leapt forward in a lunge, knife first.


Then suddenly the elderly blind man struck the boy with his cane, tripping him and throwing him off balance. It slowed the assailant, but did not stop his evil mission. A scream emerged from the Hispanic girl, high and piercing, reminding Rhonda so much of the one she had let out while holding her granddaughter’s body in the street. Something stirred in her then, a surge of courage from deep within. No one was going to hurt that man on her bus.


The teen ran toward them both with a twisted expression, his bloodshot eyes crazed and sweat dripping from his brow. As he reached the homeless man, she leapt forward and punched the teen in the face with all her might. Blow after blow, she pummeled him, as the soldier from the back ran forward, wrestled the knife from his hand and helped to restrain him. Bloodied and barely conscious, the teen began to weep.


The homeless man, even more disheveled than when he had entered the bus, nodded his thanks to Rhonda and the soldier. But then he did something even more curious. He leaned down and whispered something to the teen, just before he passed out.


“Sometimes we must meet our own demons face to face in order to defeat them.”



Then, he smiled.


10 years later…


The man sat in the corner, fumbling with the cross that hung from his neck and looking intently at the young people in the circle. Group was the time they were allowed to share whatever was on their mind, but this was their first time here. It was a new cohort of those who sought rehabilitation, and he had found that in sharing his own story, they were much more willing to open up. And that is just what he had done.


“That was “Doug” then,” he said. “The old me—before I ended up here and started my road to recovery.”


“Was the homeless guy real?” said Ben, a quiet and thoughtful young man.


Peter, the teen next to him, snickered. “Oh, come on, man, that’s just a story, right?”


Doug looked back at them, thoughtfully. “Is it?” He smiled and gave them a quick wink. He hoped it would make them comfortable enough to face their own monsters, and if they couldn’t yet, he would be with them on that bus.


Mary Leoson teaches English and psychology courses at numerous colleges and universities in the Cleveland area and nationwide. She holds an M.A. in English & Writing from Western New Mexico University, an M.S. in Psychology from Walden University, and a B.S. in Criminology from Indiana State University. In her spare time, she weaves words and hopes to heal the world one story at a time.

She lives in the Cleveland area with her husband, daughter, and numerous rescue dogs.

Personal Links:

Share this!

Fueling Wholesome Entertainment

TWJ Magazine is the premier publication for lovers of the written word.