Nothing More Human

By SURAJ ALVA

 

You are in a chamber, waiting for the bailiff.  

When he comes in, you wish you had been killed. Not your brother. 

The rusted scent of the metal chair you’re on reminds you of the smell of his blood on your hands, chest, and hair: sweetly pungent with a strong hint of iron. 

You start hearing his choked gurgles, see the blood spouting from his mouth. Smelling again the gunpowder-laced air between your body and his. The gurgling stops, his eyes close, and alarm strikes your throat numb, temporarily freezing your screams. His body begins to tremble, violently.

It gives you hope. You tell yourself he is still alive.

The sirens sound louder and louder.

A reassuring hand is placed on your shoulder. You look up. It’s the bailiff. The knot below your chest loosens, letting you breathe. You get up and are pushed gently toward a bright light coming from an open doorway.

“They’re waiting,” he says.

You cross over to the light, take a seat on the witness stand. You look around the courtroom but recognize no one except your parents.

You wonder why none of Cyrus’s friends showed up. Four years have passed since his murder—long enough maybe for them to forget? Or do they think the trial is taking place in Long Beach near where he was shot instead of here in Norwalk a dozen miles away? But—

Your thoughts freeze.

He is brought in. 

He has lost weight since you saw him three years ago, at the preliminaries. His tattoos are all covered up now, his head is no longer shaved—and he is wearing glasses.

He looks like a good citizen, a momma’s boy. Not a hardened gangbanger whose criminal moniker is “Kilz.”

You try to catch his gaze but fail. He looks only at his feet.

You find this amusing. He killed your little brother and now cannot look at you.

The bullet entered Cyrus’s chin and shut down his nervous system on its passage through his brain. It was this shutdown that caused his body to tremble, which you mistook for life.

You hope Mr. Kilz looks at you. You want him to see your hatred. You need him to feel your wrath. To know it is not only you sitting here, but your brother as well.

“Could you please state your name for the court?” a voice asks.

“Suraj Alva,” you answer.

“Age?”

“Twenty-eight.”

After you’re sworn in, a portrait appears on the overhead projector screen.

It is Cyrus, post-life. His eyes, forced open, are bloodshot. The lower jaw hangs loose, grinning menacingly with teeth shattered by the bullet’s trajectory.

Your whole body tenses, vision blurring. You try to focus on something, anything.

On May 30, 2013, Jorge Serrato, or Kilz, had come to rob your brother at your family home in the quiet, middle-class suburb of Lakewood, California. He had found out Cyrus was a college student selling pot and thought if he showed up with a gun and banged his gang, your brother would hand over everything he had. Cyrus did not.

“Do you recognize the man in the photograph, Mr. Alva?” Betty, the district attorney, asks. 

 

Of course you do. You know that face, no matter its brutalized state.

You were there when it first appeared in this world.

When he was born in 1993, your parents—poor migrant workers from India—had just returned to oil-rich Kuwait, having fled the country after Saddam’s 1990 invasion. They had waited out the war in their native India. But, finding it impossible to land a job, they’d relocated back to the Persian Gulf.

You were four when you were driven to the hospital in Al Farwaniah, a suburb of Kuwait City. You and your cousin were in the backseat of your uncle’s battered Chevy, waging a pinching war. Losing, you tried hard not to cry. She was older and much stronger.

Your dad’s entire family was at the hospital. They too had made it back to Kuwait from India, no longer refugees fleeing Iraqi occupation.

Your mom’s sisters weren’t so lucky. They were still stuck in India—two years after the war’s end, after Saddam was forced into retreat by the Americans.

You weren’t allowed in the room where your parents were. You didn’t know what was going on. Bored, you and your cousin went into an empty sickroom. Inside, you both jumped on beds, pushing buttons above the headrests—curious to know what would happen.

The lights came on, bathing the room in white. After a few seconds, intermittent red flashes broke the white’s monopoly. Screeching, halting sounds joined the melee. And into the room came several uniformed women.

They grabbed you and your cousin by the ears. After a few smacks, you two were dragged to where your relatives were. They talked to your Chevy-owning uncle and left.

To your surprise, your uncle didn’t get mad. Instead, he smiled, took you to the cafeteria, and bought you a chocolate cupcake.

“You’re going to be a big brother,” he said.

You looked at him, confused. You were already a big brother. A little monster named Evangeline had arrived a year ago. She was ugly and didn’t have a peepee. This absence, you thought, was why your parents paid her more attention.

“His name is Cyrus,” he continued.

When you were finally brought into the room, you saw a dark brown blob in white screaming your eardrums deaf.

Your mom called to you from her bed.

You walked toward her, hesitant. She took your hand and placed it—to your alarm—on the wailing brownie.

“Say hi to your baby brother,” she said.

You mumbled toward the noise. In response, the screaming became even louder.

 

“Yes, the man in the photo, he—he’s my brother,” you say.

“Cyrus Alva?” Betty asks.

“Yes.”

“Can you describe your relationship to the victim?”

“What?”

“Who was he, to you?”

“He was my brother.”

“I mean, Mr. Alva, were you two close?”

 

You loved him, deeply. You knew this the night your parents announced you all were moving back to India.

In 1997, after five years in Kuwait—a country you’d grown attached to—you were leaving it forever. When your mom tucked you, Evangeline, and Cyrus in bed that night, you didn’t sleep.

You lay there, face buried into the pillow, sobbing.

You didn’t want to go.

Not to India. You didn’t want to move there. Evie and Bablu (what your family called Cyrus) were excited, but what did they know? They’d never been to that dump. She was five and he, four—too young to realize what hell India was.

You knew. You’d been there. The most recent visit was a few months ago, to see the Mumbai apartment your dad had bought, a trip Evie and Bablu were not taken on.

The apartment was in a suburb called Mira Road, on the outskirts of the city. There was no running water. And electricity came through only a few hours a day. The roads—half of them unpaved—were littered with trash, and beggars missing hands, legs, and eyes crowded the streets. Animals—cows, dogs, snakes, monkeys, goats, elephants—were everywhere. Their poop made the whole place stink.

Kuwait was different. There was running water and electricity twenty-four hours a day. All the roads were paved, clean. And there were no beggars. The only animals to be seen were stray cats, and the air smelled nice, with a faint hint of petrol.

You tried to stop crying. You had to think.

You’d run away. Your best friend, Chintu, would hide you. The thought of never seeing him or your other friends brought more tears.

You wiped away the tears. You were an eight-year-old boy after all, not a silly girl. You started looking for your backpack.

Dad had lost his driving job. As he ran out of money and was unable to find other work, his visa was voided. He and his family were no longer welcome in Kuwait. It didn’t matter that you, Evie, and Bablu were all born in the city-state, that both of your parents had lived in the country for over ten years.

Kuwait didn’t want you. You were not people but disposable diapers, thrown out once used. The country was full of foreigners like you. The adults came to work, sometimes bringing their families. But once they lost their job, they had to leave. Only citizens or “locals” could stay: those whose ancestors belonged to this desert.

It was time to say goodbye. You walked over to where Evie and Bablu were sleeping. Evie was on her side, her hand between her face and the pillow. You stared at her but felt no emotion.

Beside her, Bablu was on his back, blanket thrown aside. Warmth surged up from your belly to the tips of your ears. You smiled as your hand brushed his hair. You bent down, planting a kiss.

Out on the streets, you were gripped by fear. Your throat choked on the mucus previously loosened. Not because you were running away—that was an adventure. You were afraid of what might happen to Bablu. What if he was kidnapped? You were told Kuwaiti men loved little Indian boys. For what, you were not sure. What if Arab gangs ambushed him? And found out he was not Muslim? What if…?

 

“He was four years younger than me…” you say.

“Go on,” Betty encourages.

“He was like my, like my chil—”

“Like your child?”

“He—he was my baby brother. For a time… we were inseparable.”

Cyrus’s lifeless face disappears from the overhead screen. It is replaced by a photograph of your front porch. His dead body is on it, blood staining the grass below. “Where were you that day?” Betty asks.

“I was inside the house,” you reply.

“When did you come out to the porch?”

“I came out when I heard a commotion.”

“What did you hear?”

“I heard a voice threatening my brother.”

“What else?”

“A shuffling of feet, as in a dance.”

“You went outside, then?”

“Yes.”

“What did you see?”

“I saw a man—my brother was swinging at him.”

“He was fighting, you mean?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do?”

“I—I jumped in.”

“You joined the fight?”

“Yes.”

“Why didn’t you call the police?”

“I…”

 

“Why didn’t you call the police?”—a refrain repeated ever since Cyrus’s funeral.

How could you tell people calling the police didn’t occur to you? Would anyone understand? You and Bablu always had each other’s back. You trusted no one else. Not your parents, not your sister, nobody.

This alliance began with your family’s move to that Mira Road apartment on Mumbai’s periphery. You, Evie, and Bablu were outsiders. None of you could speak the local Marathi or Hindi. Your English was heavily accented with Konkani—the language you used at home, your mother tongue. And you were Christians, a minority in Mumbai.

Your parents were born in a village five hundred miles south of the city—a region dominated by Catholic missionaries. You not only prayed to a different God but also ate beef and pork—food Mira Road’s Hindus and Muslims considered taboo. All this set you three apart from the neighborhood children. Making you and Bablu a target for the cruelty peculiar to boys.

Walking toward your apartment building one day, you passed kids playing cricket.

“Sai Baba! Sai Baba! Make way for the saint,” they jeered.

You paused midstep, gritting your teeth. The building’s lobby was five paces away. You could walk in and up the stairs home—or take the bait.

For months since you’d arrived, you’d been taunted by the neighborhood runts. To them, you were an odd nine-year-old. Not only did you speak, pray, and eat differently, but you wore thick glasses and, like the Hindu guru Sai Baba, had curly hair.

You looked over. There were only two of them: one bowling, the other batting.

You could usually take on three of the runts at a time. They were weaker than you, skinnier—nothing but bones. Two shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, you were looking forward to beating them senseless.

Without another thought, you charged them head-on.

But soon, the two runts were joined by their friends. And you were knocked to the ground.

When you attempted to get back up, a kick knocked you flat again.

There were at least six of them now. You had been tricked—ambushed, outnumbered, and outflanked.

You wanted to scream but hesitated, afraid the boys encircling might mistake it for the cry of defeat.

As you lay there, waiting to be stomped on, you heard someone yell.

Nothing happened. No blows. No pain.

Projectiles landed on the ground beside you. You opened your eyes and saw the herd dispersing.

A straggler sank to the ground, his forehead bleeding. Another got hit smack in the gut. Through the kicked-up dirt and mass of bodies in flight, you saw your five-year-old brother. Bablu was hurling rocks from a shoulder-slung pouch. He was making his way to you, shouting threats and insults.

You were grateful but a little embarrassed at needing the help of someone so young. You also wondered where he’d learned to throw like that.

Since then, you two had banded together. To defend yourselves, and sometimes pick fights you knew you could win.

 

“I didn’t call the police… I mean, he was in danger,” you say.

“You didn’t have time?” Betty asks.

“I… no, I didn’t.”

“Thank you, Mr. Alva.”

Betty takes her seat, the bench calling on the defense. You look at Mr. “Kilz”—Jorge. His upper body is flung over the table, head buried in his hands. You wonder if he is asleep. But then you see him tremble.

The formally dressed woman beside him whispers in his ear. She is his public defender. He straightens up and stares straight ahead. You smirk, but for the first time, you feel sorry for him.

He is a married man in his mid-thirties, with two young kids. His wife was the getaway driver and was also charged with first-degree murder. You think about his kids—what will happen to them?

His lawyer gets up and walks toward you. Midway, she turns to the jury.

“When you came out on the porch, where was your brother?” she asks.

“He was on the porch too,” you reply.

“Were you to his left, right, or behind him?”

“I was behind him, to his… left.”

“Did you see the gun?”

“No.”

“But you heard it?”

“Yes.”

“What did it sound like?”

“A loud pop.”

“So you heard a loud pop, but didn’t see what caused it?”

“No, I didn’t.”

She walks back to where she was sitting, rearranges some papers.

“You mentioned in your testimony that you are visually impaired,” she says.

“Yes, I am,” you confirm.

“How exactly?”

“I am extremely nearsighted.”

“Meaning you can’t see things that are far away?”

“Yes.”

“How far?”

“My best corrected vision is 20/60.”

“And normal vision is 20/20, right?”

“Yes.”

“So, you see three hundred percent less than the normal person?”

“No, I didn’t say that. It’s just, on an eye chart twenty feet away, I can…”

“Go on,”

“I can only read the first four lines, and not the last two.”

“That’s with glasses?”

“I wear contacts. But, yes, that’s with them.”

“Then, how could you possibly have seen my client—”

“He was less than five feet away!”

Jorge motions to her. She goes to him and, leaning in, nods.

“Moving on, Mr. Alva. Who owned the house, the one you two lived in?”

“My parents.”

“Where were they that day?”

“At work—it was one in the afternoon.”

“What do they do?”

“My dad works at a gas station. My mom’s a nurse.”

“They give you money?”

“No, not really.”

“Who pays for your and your brother’s college?”

“Financial aid.”

“Spending money?”

“I took exams and wrote papers for students who paid me.”

“And your brother?”

“He sold pot.”

“When did he start his little business?”

“A few months before he died.”

“Very entrepreneurial, the both of you.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

“Did you give him the idea?”

“What idea?”

“To sell drugs.”

“He sold pot.”

“Isn’t that a drug, Mr. Alva?” 

 

You didn’t tell him to sell pot. But you didn’t stop him either. You thought it was harmless.

Just like you thought your dad selling liquor in Saudi Arabia was benign.

After leaving Kuwait, your father failed to secure a decent job in India, where you lived for four years. Because he’d left school young, nothing distinguished him from Mumbai’s unemployed hordes. Except—he could speak Arabic.

Knowledge of the language landed him back in the Gulf, this time in Riyadh. In 1998, he was hired by a rations supplier contracted to the U.S. military. Three years later, he sent for his family.

You were excited. You were finally leaving the hell of India for the paradise you imagined Saudi Arabia to be—thinking of your happy childhood in Kuwait.

But a year after your arrival, you dreamed of running away, back to India.

In Mumbai, your dad’s foreign remittance had gone a long way. You and your family had lived comfortably in your two-bedroom Mira Road apartment.

Riyadh was more expensive. You all had to share a two-bedroom apartment with another family of four.

You were twelve now, and girls had gone from being a curiosity to an obsession. But there were no girls to be seen in this fanatically religious society. Everywhere—especially in school—girls were separated from boys. Contact between the two was forbidden. Not like in Mira Road, where a girl in class one day grabbed your butt and smiled when you turned around. You were in the sixth grade then and didn’t understand. You thought of this fondly now, in a country where women seemed not to exist.

Accessing porn was nearly impossible. The Saudi government censored the internet heavily. Kissing and nudity scenes were cut from movies and TV. To see a naked woman, you’d download images or videos through peer-to-peer file-sharing applications.

Since there were nine people living in your apartment, there was no privacy. To masturbate, you’d go to the local mall’s restrooms—which were spotlessly clean, unlike Indian public toilets.

Til one day, your dad moved the family to a three-bedroom apartment. And for the first time in your life, you had your own room. You started receiving pocket money and could buy books to read—instead of stealing them. Your parents also bought themselves a better car. You knew something was off. Your dad couldn’t really afford such luxuries. Not in a country where all the best-paying jobs were reserved for Saudis and people who were “U.K.- or U.S.-educated”—an indirect way of excluding qualified Indians and other Asians. Your suspicions were confirmed when the police barged into your new apartment and took your dad away.

In a country perpetually under prohibition, he was charged with selling liquor. When you went to see him in prison—the only time—you prayed he would be unhurt. At fourteen, you understood the rumors. You knew them to be true. A confession—something one signed after being beaten half to death—was less complicated than due process. And due process for migrant workers in Saudi Arabia was unheard of. But you told yourself he wouldn’t be beaten or tortured. There was no need—he was guilty.

The invasion of neighboring Iraq had flooded Saudi Arabia with American and other foreign personnel. They wanted booze and didn’t care for the local laws banning it. Overnight, a large, sophisticated black market dedicated to spirits had emerged. Your dad, earning barely enough to support his family, couldn’t resist taking advantage of such opportunity. It was only alcohol, after all. Everyone the world over drank it.

When you and she visited him in prison that day, tears streaked down your mom’s face. She walked away from your dad, who was in an area cordoned off by a chain-link fence on three sides. The fourth was a wall containing a door. It opened onto a corridor leading back to the prisoners’ cells.

She made her way toward Mr. Sankar, who was also behind the fence, but standing at the other end.

He had been your dad’s accomplice and was also serving time.

“I forgive you,” she said.

The visitation “section” was outdoors in the roasting Riyadh sun. Evie and Bablu were sluggish, falling asleep on their feet. There was nowhere to sit, no bathrooms or even a water fountain. And physical contact with prisoners was limited to the space between wires.

You looked at your dad. He appeared unmolested, calm. He walked over to Mr. Sankar and, stopping a few feet away, simply gazed at him—as if seeing him for the first time. Mr. Sankar was rumored to be the informer who betrayed your dad.

Mr. Sankar turned toward your dad. “It’s going to be all right, Henry,” he said.

Your dad was suddenly upon him, strangling him with his bare hands. “How? You bloody rat! How—?” he demanded.

Sirens blared, and guards rushed toward the duo.

 

“No, I didn’t give him the idea to sell pot. He got it himself. This is California, after all. Pot is everywhere and will be legal soon,” you say.

“But it wasn’t then, four years ago; and selling marijuana without a license, even now, is illegal,” Veronica, the public defender, responds.

“I want to show you something,” she continues.

She connects her laptop to the projector. On the screen is a young man walking the liquor isle of a supermarket. Abruptly, he grabs a bottle and heads toward the exit. Someone, an employee, steps in his path, trying to stop him. The man pushes the employee aside, bolting through to the outside.

“Do you recognize the man running out the door?” she asks.

“Yes,” you reply.

“Who is he?”

“Cyrus.”

“Your brother?”

“Yes.”

“Strong-armed robbery and, before that, petty theft, assault—”

You shift in your seat, gripping tightly the wooden armrests. Rage and disbelief choke you from speaking. A chair slides back. Betty the D.A. is standing.

“Is there a question, Your Honor?” she asks.

“I am getting to it,” Veronica says.

They both stare at the judge. He is silent for a few seconds.

“You may continue, but be careful,” he says to Veronica.

“Thank you, Your Honor,” she replies.

She disconnects her laptop, taking it back to her table. But before placing it down, she turns around.

“He was seventeen at the time of the robbery charge, yes?” she asks.

“I guess. I—I was not there,” you reply.

“Where were you?”

“Abroad, living in Fra—”

“After a month in juvenile detention, he was put in a state foster home, correct?”

“Yes, I think—”

“While institutionalized, did he get into any trouble?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“He couldn’t have, could he?”

“Excuse me?”

“At eighteen, Mr. Alva, he returned home to your parents?”

“Yes.”

“In the year and a half since his release, he was charged with two DUIs?”

Your shoulders stiffen.

“Objection! Relevance?” Betty shouts.

“Sustained,” the judge confirms.

Veronica appears cowed. She sits down and ruffles some papers. Picking up a sheet, she stares at it.

“When did he start dealing drugs?” she asks.

“What?” you respond.

“Selling pot, Mr. Alva.”

“A few months before he died.”

“Exactly when?”

“After his second DUI, he—he had to pay for a lawyer.”

“Ah, a crime to support past crimes? A career crimi—”

“Objection!” Betty shouts, her face flushed.

 

Cyrus was not a “career criminal.” His brushes with the law—petty theft, assault, strong armed robbery, DUI, selling marijuana—were not the actions of a criminal mastermind but those of a troubled teenager. He was nineteen when he died.

In 2003, with your dad still in prison, your mom had had two choices: return to India or immigrate to the West. She could not stay in Saudi Arabia, a single mother of three children. A nurse when there was a shortage of them in the U.S., she applied for a green card. Teenaged you and Evie, along with eleven-year-old Bablu, walked out of LAX eighteen months later. 

After serving his prison term, your dad flew out to join you. Your family was once again made whole, though your father seemed a different man. He was no longer loquacious but aloof, barely speaking throughout his first few months on American soil.

He began to go on drinking binges. He had always been a heavy drinker, but this was different. He didn’t have a job to go to. With your mom working sixty hours a week, he chose to be a stay-at-home dad. And after dropping you, Evie, and Bablu off at school, he would start his drinking.

You’d enrolled at Lakewood High midway through your sophomore year. You were terrified. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, being an Indian meant exclusion, humiliation, and violence. You imagined something very similar might happen with white people. A white person in Indian cinema or TV was always cursing, kicking, or spitting on an Indian. 

Ironically, much fuss was made of you in the beginning—with everyone trying to recruit the only foreigner to their clique. But you didn’t fit in with the wannabe gangbangers, the metalheads, the preppy kids, or the geeks. After a while, the novelty attached to an exotic outsider wore off and you were left alone. It didn’t matter. You landed a paid internship at a bank and didn’t have time for friends. It paid higher than other jobs teenagers could get, but your father hated the idea of you working while he did not, and when he got drunk, he found excuses to beat you.

The beatings were not new. Your earliest memories of him were tinged with violence. In Kuwait, he had hung Evie upside down five feet from the ground when she refused to go to school. When Bablu was eight, he was savagely kicked for losing a few coins. In the communities you had lived in, parents often physically disciplined their kids. If you were unlucky to have a parent who drank or had a taste for blood, it was okay—as long as the children were not permanently disabled or killed.

The difference now was that you believed no reason existed to justify the violence. From school you’d go work a few hours at the bank, and when you came home, your father would already be drunk. He’d start a quarrel which inevitably turned physical, and brutally so. Your mom worked nights, and no one your family knew lived within five thousand miles.

Eventually, you learned such behavior was not tolerated by Americans. The first group in high school you hung out with—the wannabe gangbangers—had taught you your parents were not holy. They could be defied and resisted, with force if necessary.

You did so: refusing to turn over the money you earned, defending yourself in a beating, and sometimes striking him before he could get in the first punch. He resorted to denying you food, throwing you out of the house. You didn’t mind. You had money and felt you were on an adventure: tasting American fast food, sleeping in alleyways and parks, hanging out with the homeless and other runaways.

At a loss, your father began encouraging you to commit suicide, telling you how useless you were. And when your mom was not around—which was all the time—he’d wish openly that you and Bablu had died somehow, leaving him only his daughter, Evie.

You paid him no attention. You knew your worth. You simply did what you wanted and distanced yourself from your family, including Bablu. You were too busy with school, a job, getting into college, and fitting into American society to be bothered with your little brother. 

Your first year in college coincided with Bablu’s freshman year in high school. You heard about him running away, getting in trouble with the law, suspended from school. What you didn’t understand was why he kept getting caught—attracting attention. During your high school years, you had gotten into fights, shoplifted, done drugs, stolen your dad’s minivan and driven drunk or high. Yet you’d managed to fly under everyone’s radar, never getting caught or, if you did, managing to talk your way out of any consequences—your grades and job convincing anyone you were harmless. Why couldn’t Bablu do the same? When you mentioned this to him, he pointed out that he hated school and was only fourteen—too young to work.

Wanting to get farther away from home, you picked a major that required you to study abroad. You moved to Paris in September 2010, planning never to return. The city, to you, represented culture and sophistication. It was where your favorite writers had lived—Maupassant, Balzac, Jules Verne, Stendhal, and Mallarmé. With dreams of becoming a writer one day, you thought the French capital would inspire you. You took a room in the eighteenth arrondissement near Porte de Clignancourt. The area was inexpensive, being one of the city’s ghettos which housed the French of Arab and African origin.

Two years of college French and a knack for languages allowed you to communicate easily with the people of your neighborhood. You learned their customs, ate what they ate, picked up slang, and discovered they all hated France. You experienced firsthand why: with your shoulder-length hair that was really curly and your brown skin, you were stared at everywhere you went. Often, you were searched and questioned by the police. But once you let them know you were American, they apologized and left you alone.

If you remained in the country, you realized, you’d forever be an outsider—unlike in California, where, by the time you’d graduated from high school, everyone forgot you were an immigrant and treated you like you were born and raised in the U.S.A.

Then, half a year into your stay in Paris, Evie called you. You hadn’t talked to anyone in your family in more than two months. You didn’t want to. Reluctantly, you answered the phone.

“Evie, I don’t want to talk, I tol—” you said.

“It’s—it’s Cyrus, he…” Evangeline replied.

“What? Bablu, what did he do now?”

“He’s in surgery.”

“Surgery? Why?”

“He—he attempted suicide.”

“What? I don’t un—”

“He swallowed a bunch of Tylenol and vodka. His liver… it failed.”

“Oh my God! Why? Who…?”

“Da—Dad told him to.”

“To kill himself?”

“Yes, he even gave him the pills and liquor.”

“Motherfuck—”

“Suraj? Suraj?”

“Yes, I…”

“The surgeon says he has a twenty percent chance of surviving.”

Your whole body shook. Why would anyone, especially Bablu, do such a thing? There were many other escape routes away from home. Why choose death?

“Suraj?”

“Yea, I’m—” 

“I’ll call you after the surgery.”

“Should I—I’ll go to the airport right now, get on—”

“There’s no need. There’s nothing you can do.”

He stayed in the hospital a little over three months. You decided to wrap up the academic year and leave Paris for home.

In August 2011, you moved into your parents’ Lakewood residence. When he turned eighteen in October, Cyrus—having spent the previous few months in a foster home—came back to live there with you. It was only you and him along with your parents. Evie was living in an apartment near her university some distance away.

You dedicated yourself to him, helping in any way you could: driving him around, navigating his coursework at the local community college, buying things he needed. You also hung out with him and his friends—all of whom skirted the law but were closer to him than family.

He appeared to be self-aware, explaining his actions—lawbreaking and suicide attempt—as a way to escape the chaos at home. He told you that when you left for college, he’d preferred being in jail, or drunk if stuck at home. He seemed to be unafraid, of laws or anyone, especially your father.

Your father by this time had started working as a gas station clerk. He still drank, but since you had moved back in, his bitterness was redirected toward you instead of your brother. You managed to handle this for a time, only occasionally reacting by lashing out. Often, Cyrus would step in when he heard your father’s drunken tirades and just slap him across the face, shutting him up for the night.

When Cyrus got his license and a car, he was never at home—except to sleep. And he slept most nights sprawled out on the living room couch rather than in his own room, his breath stinking of booze. You worried, often imagining him dead in a car wreck somewhere, and didn’t sleep til you heard his footsteps climbing up to the front porch. When you found him on the couch in the morning, you checked his pulse.

Before long he got his first DUI and then his second and started selling pot to pay for a lawyer. Your parents objected, but you weighed in, explaining that pot was no big deal. Everyone, especially in California, smoked it. It had a semilegal status, and no cop in the state would arrest him for the amounts he carried. Since he’d aced his first two years of classes at the community college and declared his intention to study engineering, your parents looked the other way.

But it became more than just an easy way to make some cash. Everyone in the city of Lakewood and surrounding Long Beach knew who Cyrus was. He was always invited to parties, and the ones he threw at home when your parents were away brimmed with people of all types. At one of these, you played beer pong with skinheads—something you considered absurd, almost surreal.

He began to call himself a professional “medicator” and told you he sold a thousand dollars of pot a week—though you knew this was an exaggeration. He posted pictures of himself smoking weed or posing with stacks of money.

You didn’t think anything of it at the time. You didn’t think all this would attract unwanted attention and cost him his life. He was a teenager after all, loving the attention—his popularity, his legend. In fact, you were proud. He had managed to survive your dysfunctional family and the constant uprooting to create for himself an identity—however superficial and temporary.

 

Nearly two years have passed since the trial where Jorge Serrato was convicted and sentenced to fifty-five mandatory years in prison.

When he came to rob Bablu, Bablu gave him what he had on him. But Mr. “Kilz” was not satisfied. He wanted to break into the house where you were.

Bablu stopped him, saying, “I’d rather you kill me than come inside and see my shit.” And started swinging. 

 

Suraj Alva lives in Los Angeles, where he works odd jobs to support his writing habit. He wrote his first story in March 2017, and so far his work has appeared in The GNU Journal, The Fiction Pool, and elsewhere. This is his first major publication.

[Purchase Issue 19 here.]

Nothing More Human

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