✘ 7:40 PM ✘

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7:40 PM—the side that stays hidden, NJ



People that pass us have hollowed faces and drooping eyes—the result of social injustice, and of course, drugs. They don't seem to notice anyone or anything as they stumble like phantoms in the street. There's a few men gambling in one of the alleys, children sitting on some of the steps of an abandoned church, watching the drunk men bet their lives away. Smoke pillars from their mouths, the ends of the sticks illuminating the person across from them just slightly.

I always knew things on this side were bad. When I was a little girl my mom would grip onto my hand, holding her shawl tightly against her chest as we rammed our way through the crowds.

One night my father stayed out too late and my mother marched the both of us through the town to get him. He was playing pool with a bucket of sweat caught in his eyebrows.

There wasn't any big commotion. No bar room fight caused by the concerned wife and met with an angered husband. She simply grabbed his arm, leaned her lips close to his ear and said, 'it's time to come home.'

I'm not sure why he didn't fight her command. I like to think it was because of my mother's smooth Italian accent, and Vogue body that undoubtedly managed to turn heads. That he didn't want the men he associated with looking at his girl.

I think that was the day I touched the thought of my father being a kind man trapped in a bad man's life.

The next week there was a lot of yelling and a lot of tears. I have my own assumptions of what had happened.

These people are the same as my father. They might have had good lives once. Morals might have mattered to them. But, somewhere down the road, something happened that struck them down and they haven't been able to get up since.

"Don't stare," Joel says, breaking me out of my thoughts, "they'll stare back."

And Joel is one of them.

I hold my arm close to my side, trying my best not to bump into anybody disagreeable. It's not long until we break through the hoard and start to walk up a long, metal staircase.

Matteo's head bounces up-and-down, hitting Joel's back every time. His skin has lost all form of color, his usual Italian tan dissipated. If anybody so much as glanced at him they would think he was dead.

Joel's feet pound heavily due to the extra weight the unconscious body is causing. He starts to dig in his pocket, pulling out a ring of keys. I watch as he struggles to get the right one, fighting with the mess until he reaches a door at the top of the stairs.

He shakes the ring a few times before sticking the key in the wobbly doorknob. The door's hinges cry for mercy when Joel kicks it open with his foot, the thing creaking the whole way. We both rush in and I try to stay out of the way as he puts Matteo down on his couch.

I make my way over to the drugged-up boy while Joel rushes out of the room.

"Do me a favor and take his shirt off," he shouts from wherever he is.

I lift Teo up slightly, moving my knee under his head as I start to peel the end of his shirt off of his hot skin. Once I get it off I roll it up in a ball and toss it on the opposite end of the couch. My heart starts to race at the sight of his bare chest, cuts and bruises covering that too. The tattoo is larger than I thought, much larger than the portion he actually showed me.

My eyes wander down to the veins in his left arm. They ripple from the point of a small puncture, treating his skin like an electrical outlet.

"Here," Joel walks up behind me before crouching down beside the couch. He grips a wet towel in one hand and a beer in the other. "Help me wrap this around him," he places the bottle down on the coffee table a few feet away before handing me one end of the towel.

Carefully, I untangle my leg that's supporting Matteo's head, tucking the freezing towel under his arms.

"It's going to cool down his temperature," Joel starts, finishing up his side and taking the beer in his hand once more.

He sits down on the matted rug, resting his back against the base of the couch. His head leans back and he closes his eyes, the condensation of the bottle dripping onto the leg of his jeans. The flickering light-bulb on the ceiling illuminates his face just enough to see how tired he is.

"Thank you," I say, feeling like the moment is right.

A smile cracks open and the corners of his eyes crinkle, "did you just say thank you?"

I don't respond, trying my best not to argue with him. He doesn't say anything more and the silence gives me an opportunity to look around the run-down apartment.

The place is close to being empty and from what I can tell there's only two rooms. I look behind the couch, a mess of blankets and a pillow piled up on the floor. A few crushed beer cans litter the space near the makeshift bed.

"How long have you lived here?" I ask, looking back down at him.

He shrugs his shoulders, "not long."

The room buzzes, making the space in my head feel cluttered and dizzy.

"You know the herb pharmacy across from the record store?" he asks abruptly, opening his eyes to look over at me.

I nod my head, thinking of all the odd things I've seen go on in there from my window.

"They got shut down, right?" he says, continuing the second half of the question.

A smile makes its way on to my face, realizing that he has just as many questions as me. He takes notice to this particular smile and lets his eyebrows furrow low.

"I was locking up the store when it happened," I begin, remembering the police officers drag the workers out one-by-one. "They got busted for embezzlement," I continue, "everybody was put behind bars ... except the owner."

He nods his head, trying to act nonchalant instead of releasing an expression of immense regret.

Slowly, I untangle my leg that's supporting Matteo's head, trying my best not to disturb him. I slide down until I'm on the ground too, clasping my hands in my lap. "Why?" I finish, watching him roll his eyes and run his hand along his face.

"Should I just accept the fact that normal conversations don't exist with you?" he avoids my question.

"You catch on quick," I say, letting the sarcasm draw.

He watches me for a while and I can tell that he's mentally arguing with himself. Slowly, keeping his eyes on me, he lifts the lid of the beer to his lips.

I wait until he's done stalling, giving him the fight of patience.

"Her name is Bai Li," he starts, giving in sooner than I thought, "and she runs this town."

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