Screaming punctured the musty, smoke-filled air, and all Lucas could think about was if he'd ever hated someone before.
What was hate, really? Did it drill little holes inside you until your empathy drizzled out and left you a bitterly parched wasteland? Maybe it clobbered you suddenly like the subway muggers or adjusted notches of dislike so incrementally that you wouldn't recognize the changes until you withdrew your weapon one day and committed the crime that would later make an honorable mention on the nightly news.
Everywhere Lucas's dark eyes wandered, decay and violence greeted him gleefully, as though wickedness delighted in goodness's demise. He supposed it had to, to scramble so feverishly across society.
Lucas's fingers drifted involuntarily to his head. He remained rational even among these tidal waves of nonsense. Long ago, he'd vowed to forgo the bottle, electronic smokes and other substances, ignore the pretty girls (including the long-legged ones), and all other vices. He would remain clean in this corrupting world; he owed it to himself and any future kin as a young man who "saw" what truly was... and was not.
The train squealed to a rocky halt, its brakes pausing from their screaming match. Lucas pivoted through the automatic doors behind the elderly and pregnant passengers, suppressing disgust at those who jostled out ahead of them. Etiquette had never been one of the city's crowning touches, but when a woman with a midsection the size of a globe waddled in front of someone, it was hardly appropriate to shove her away to disembark first.
A familiar pain twisted in Lucas's chest. He began to meander through the swells of subway users, averting his gaze from the various disturbing activities he saw at each terminal.
Blistering arguments between spouses. Near-frantic displays of affection between lovers. Old men imbibing miserably from poorly disguised bottles. And at the end of this line of ne'er do wells, a homeless man, unmistakable with his limp rags and coin bucket, slouched against the far wall.
Lucas's heart ached further. Countless people passed the man without so much as a second glance. It was as if he possessed a curse that prevented others from seeing him and his desperate neediness, and Lucas supposed that curse was nothing more than human selfishness.
"Good morning, sir," Lucas greeted, warmth touching his pained heart as he dropped a wad of money into the man's can.
Pale, dirt-and tear-streaked eyes swung his way. The man's lips appeared frozen on this frigid day, with faint outlines of frost marking his mouth and facial hair.
"Good morning, young man. Thank you very much."
Lucas dipped his head. "Of course, sir. Is there anything more I can do for you?"
He hoped to buy the man a hot meal and perhaps a winter jacket to force out the cold. Though just a teenager, he'd made decent money in recent years felling trees and plowing snowy driveways for his neighbors. This homeless man hadn't done anything to deserve his fate; Lucas yearned to help him as a truly good person would.
Not like these other train passengers; where was their compassion and regard?
The old man studied him with inquisitive blue eyes that, eerily, seemed to see more than they rightly should. His gaze narrowed.
"How old are you, son? If you don't mind me asking."
Lucas replied, "Fourteen, sir. I'm Lucas, by the way."
He offered his hand, and the homeless man chuckled.
"You don't want to shake this old hand, Lucas; you don't know where it's been." He cracked a stained smile. "I'm Amos. And I suppose, if you really wanted to do something for me, you could sit with me for a little while and chat."
Lucas hesitated. Though he didn't want to think unsavory things about this man who had fallen on hard times, he also knew better than to spend extended periods of time with strangers... especially those who had nothing to lose.
Swallowing his inhibitions, the boy settled next to the homeless man, discreetly transferring his wallet to the pocket facing away from him, and asked what he wanted to discuss.
Amos briefly turned his head into the north breeze swooping low through the subway. "Well, what sort of conversations could you have with a man with little to gain or lose? One who can't, in reasonable conscience, judge or condemn your choice of topics?"
Lucas ran his fingers through his hair and pondered this. It didn't take long for him to conceive an answer.
"I know!" He exclaimed. "Let's talk about the world."
Amos's withered eyes brightened in amusement. "The world? Why, that's a loaded topic! What about the world? Geopolitics? Foreign affairs? Oil rigs and climate change, or the myriad social movements sweeping the nation? Or do small uprisings in faraway countries interest you?" He chuckled.
Lucas reddened. "I just meant the way the world is going. You know." He gestured to the subway. "Culturally."
"Ah." Amos nodded. "The way the world is going. Of course."
"I've been wanting to talk about it with someone for a long time," Lucas whispered, cracking his knuckles. "But no one wants to. I don't really have friends; kids my age, and even the older ones, aren't very smart. They're part of the problem as much as the adults. And my parents are just as bad."
Amos nodded slowly. "I can see how that would be challenging."
"Don't you think the world is going to end soon?"
Amos shrugged. "Suppose it does. What are you going to do about it?"
Lucas ran his fingers along the wallet impression in his pocket. "Save up a bunch of money and stockpile food, I guess."
Amos chuckled. "What good will your money be in a ruined economy? Who's to say most of humanity won't be wiped out at the end of things? And as nice as it seems to hoard food, a supply wouldn't last as long as you think, maybe a year or two at best. But then you'd have to guard it, ration it amongst loved ones, and keep yourself and others from killing for it. What good is any of that?"
"I don't know," Lucas admitted. "I just don't like the way things are now, and if I can prepare, I can—"
"Survive and hope to do the right thing at the right time," Amos interjected. "Naturally. But if your heart is filled with hate, what does it matter that you've made it to the end?"
Lucas looked at the old man. His breath caught when he realized Amos was staring at him.
"What do you..."
A middle-aged woman had stopped in front of Lucas and Amos, and by the tart expression on her face—like she'd sampled a glass of acid—she didn't take kindly to Amos or the pair's leisurely exchange.
"Ma'am?" Lucas prompted.
The woman's scowl deepened as her eyes slid accusingly to Amos. "This man's a murderer. You'd do best to steer clear of him. Don't have anything to do with such scum!"
Her point made, she marched off, leaving a stifling silence in the wake of her comment. Lucas glanced at Amos, gooseflesh spreading over his arms.
"Is it true?" He asked. "Are you a murderer?"
Like so many others in this city?
Amos's head slowly bobbed north and south. "I'm afraid it is, son."
Lucas wrestled with an onslaught of revulsion. A kind deed for this poor old soul, and he wasn't to be pitied at all!
"Why," he hissed, "Did you take someone's life? Don't you know—haven't you learned—how precious life is?"
Amos paused to gather his bearings before replying, "More now than I ever did."
Lucas rubbed his over-heating face with his palms, horrified, astounded, and vaguely curious about the individual before him. To kill was to commit one of the darkest and gravest of crimes. Lucas wasn't sure he could tolerate being around Amos anymore, but for curiosity's sake...
"Who did you kill," he asked breathlessly, "And why?"
Make this make sense, old man.
Amos leaned against the wall as if relying on it for emotional support. His twisted fingers locked together, dotted with sunspots, while a long breath slithered from his nose.
"I killed my father," he said quietly after several tense beats. "For his estate."
Lucas reeled. "You... you what?"
Amos's head sunk low on his neck until his sparse facial hair grazed his chest. "I murdered my father because I wanted his money, and I knew he had a lot to spare." He chuckled weakly. "Look at me now."
Lucas was silent. He wanted to gag, run, or do anything but remain there with a man who'd killed his own dad.
The pale eyes swiveled back to Lucas. "Do I disgust you, boy?"
Lucas paused to contemplate his many emotions. Disgust reigned chief among them, but he surprised himself by feeling a smidgen of pity for what was left of this ragged soul.
"I don't know what to think. You killed your own dad because you were greedy. You're no different from anyone else in this town."
Tiredly, the homeless man agreed. "Greedy, yes. But also hateful."
Lucas's brows raised. "You hated your father?"
"I did. He... was cruel to me and my brothers when we were young. Played the part of professional by day and came unglued when he returned home at night." Amos shook his head. "We all despised him. But I hated him most of all. When he came near the end of his life in my early twenties, I... well, I took matters into my own hands. Vengeance was mine, I believed. So was Dad's millions."
His face narrowed into a self-loathing pinch. Amos's frankness surprised Lucas, who found himself, to his chagrin, respecting this bold admission.
"Why aren't you in prison?" He wanted to know.
"I was. But with the shifting laws in this country, I didn't receive a life sentence. Instead, I spent fifty years in the system, wasting away as I rightly deserved in my cell." He nodded to himself as memories came to mind. "I learned a lot about life and death and the value of each in that place."
The breeze briefly tangoed with wisps of Lucas's hair. He lingered on his brewing thoughts while the coolness kissed him, giving them time to distill and marinate.
Finally, he asked what had become of Amos's family.
"They disowned me. Every one of them." He shrugged weakly. "Can't blame them. The tragedy is that I thought, wrongly, that my anger at my father's abuse and hatred for him entitled me to... take his life. But I knew, deep down, as I plotted, that it wasn't right." Amos shook his head. "I ignored my conscience. And for a time, I think I seared it."
Lucas cast puzzled eyes at the old man. "What does that mean?"
Amos held out his hand. Lucas gasped at the stark white and pink lines snaking over the palms.
"Once," Amos whispered, "I cut myself with a glowing hot knife just to feel something. You know how boys are always expected to suppress themselves. But I quickly discovered that my impulsive moment of wanting to truly feel something had left my skin without any feeling or sensation. I seared it into a calloused, burned scar. When the wound healed, I couldn't feel anything in it anymore."
"Acting on a whim left you jaded in the end," Lucas observed.
"Exactly. But you should know that jadedness and cynical apathy don't occur in one moment. Often, these things build over a series of moments, thoughts, and the construction of thought patterns."
"All I can seem to think are negative thoughts," Lucas confessed.
"And so you will feel negatively," Amos concluded. "But it doesn't have to be that way."
They sat silently for a moment, listening to the wind's continuing soft cry through the subway. It was then that, on the breeze, a dragonfly whisked past them.
"Did you see that?" Amos exclaimed, jabbing a bony finger at the insect. "Oh, I love the iridescent ones. Just charming."
Lucas shrugged. "It's only a dragonfly."
Amos looked at Lucas, and through the man's mirror eyes, he saw that the creature was anything but an "only" to him.
"Fourteen. Bright. Curious enough to keep conversation with a self-admitted, cold-blooded murderer... but not moved by the little joys of nature?"
"I don't know what to tell you, sir," Lucas replied somewhat sheepishly, "But I don't find things like bugs very exciting. Usually, I prefer that they stay away from me."
Amos shook his head, then muttered, "You're further gone than I thought."
Lucas stiffened. "Pardon?"
"Oh, you and your whole generation," Amos sighed. "Why is it that the hardened criminal feels more joy in his life than the young man with his whole life ahead of him?"
"Some life," Lucas mumbled, "When all I see around me is hatred and death."
The word death flung from his teeth like a bite of spoiled fruit. As if to prove his statement, a fistfight broke out further down the tunnel. It continued for a full minute until someone attempted to distance the two men.
"You see?" Lucas sighed. "Violence, everywhere. Just this morning on the train, a bunch of people shoved past the older, feebler passengers, including a pregnant lady. So, you tell me why I should be excited about life when it's nothing but a disaster."
Amos rested a gentle hand on Lucas's. "You've let the evil around you get to your head."
Lucas smirked and shifted uncomfortably. "No kidding."
The dragonfly that had visited them earlier doubled back. It paused in front of them and hovered, gleaming green and gold, then darted off into the light at the other end of the subway. Lucas watched it go and wondered how the sight of an insect could make anyone happy.
It was then that Amos explained, "I was like you once. It took me a few more years to come to the conclusion that you have, as I wasn't as bright, but come to it, I did." He nodded to himself, gnawing his lip Lucas had only just noticed was busted. "But after everything with my father and the decades spent in prison, I realized some things..."
Lucas looked at the old man, drawn to the intensity in his eyes.
"The things that I never noticed before suddenly brought me great joy." Amos smiled faintly. "The flash of a colorful insect soaring by. Little flowers struggling to grow in a sidewalk. And those fascinating moments of connection when a baby's gaze finds yours." His mouth quivered, and he touched his worn face. A shimmer swam in his eyes. "I never did have children of my own. Now, as a convicted murderer, homeless and in his late twilight years, I understand more than you can imagine what the price is on our lives."
Lucas felt himself being moved and softened by the old man's words. He'd never had such a conversation before with anyone. His peers certainly didn't want to discuss feelings. His parents never seemed to have time to talk about them. Lucas himself didn't consider feelings very important when the harsh facts of life bludgeoned him daily. In all those beatings, like Amos's palm, Lucas lost the capacity to feel.
Was he becoming seared beyond repair?
"You look at society and see its ills," Amos said quietly. "The mental detachment, apathy, loss of connection, and so on. I understand." His stubble-spotted chin lifted, and he looked out over the passerby, eyes unfocused but seeming to see more than a mere mortal had any right to see. "But I look upon a world besieged by evils it does not comprehend. Unseen forces playing the hands of men and stirring the darkest waters in our nature until we each become little storms of hate.
"Make no mistake, young man... your world is troubled, and it is evil. But, by God, these people you hate and condemn in your heart and thoughts are so dearly loved. For all their faults, their existences are not accidental. Their struggles are not wholly unfamiliar to you, me, or anyone else. And if you would open your mind and heart from their sealed-shut position, you will eventually understand how guilty—and gifted—we all really are. You, my boy, are far from perfect. So are they." He gestured to the crowds. "And so am I." His hand lifted from Lucas's and pointed inward at his chest.
Amos shook his head. A sob strangled in his throat.
A warmth Lucas was coming to understand as compassion swept over him, filling his muscles and bones and the hard, frigid thing in his chest that was his heart, with new life. This old man may have done a brutal and terrible thing, but...
"You love people," he concluded aloud. "Just like you love your father."
Amos gazed at him for a long moment as the tears continued to pour. "That's right."
It was all Lucas needed to hear to know that his firm inner core was shattering. He felt its slow melt, the dismantling of mental strongholds washing away in light of this overwhelmingly warm forgiveness.
He touched Amos's worn hand. "I'll be right back, sir."
Amos nodded, and Lucas left to find the fattest and choicest rotisserie chicken to share with his new... friend? He supposed that was an appropriate word for this unexpected connection. He returned to Amos with the chicken, fresh fruit, canned goods, and a few toiletries.
"Please keep all the preserved food," Lucas told him upon returning, "And whatever we don't finish together of the perishable stuff. And... I'm sorry if I hurt your feelings. I didn't mean to make you cry."
Amos laughed softly through the last of his tears. "Once in a while, it does a man well to cry. Thank you, Lucas, for your kindness."
Lucas shook his head. "I'm not kind. I'm conditioned to think that only certain people deserve kindness and others deserve nothing at all. Would you really call that kindness? Isn't love supposed to be unconditional?"
"It is. But..." Amos took a bite of the chicken. His eyes closed briefly with pleasure. "Methinks you're already beginning to grasp what that looks like."
Lucas sat beside him again on the ground, realizing he'd placed his wallet in the pocket facing the old man. He left it alone and smiled to himself. Amos noticed.
"You feeling better?"
"Yes," Lucas admitted. "I think that maybe you're right. I am starting to understand."
Amos clapped him on the shoulder. "Atta boy. But listen, I have a gift for you for your kindness."
"What gift? You've... well, you've already kind of given me one."
"My company?" Amos cracked a broken grin. "It's not the worst, I suppose. But let's not pretend my breath isn't the worst."
Lucas laughed. "Check the bag, sir; I thought maybe you'd want some of that sort of thing."
Amos rustled in the grocery sack and found the toothbrush and paste. He gave a hearty laugh. "Now, that was thoughtful of you, but... as it turns out, I won't be needing it."
Lucas's eyes widened. "Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't know..."
Amos smiled and shrugged. "Don't worry, son. I deeply appreciate the effort. Anyway, here's what I want you to do if you'll oblige me: close your eyes."
Lucas obeyed, no longer with a hint of doubt. Amos took his hands, and a moment of silence enveloped them. As the moment lingered, Lucas began to feel a greater warmth than he'd ever known spread through his body. Thoughts and memories of peace, family, and undue kindness flowed into his mind in soothing rivers, weaving delicately into the cold cavern of his heart.
"What are you doing?" Lucas asked, eyes still squeezed shut.
"I want you to take this with you," Amos murmured. "I give you all the gladness I ever felt in my heart to help you... to tide you over the evil and hatred that dominates this world."
Strangely, Lucas didn't question if this was possible. In his soul, he knew that this experience—this transfer of a life force—was him inheriting a piece of Amos's soul.
"The world will always be dark, Lucas," Amos said softly. "But we needn't be dark with it. I saw bitterness and brokenness in your future if you continued on your current path. Now, I see that your gifted mind and understanding, which surpasses your years, will make you a mighty influence one day. Give it time. Know that you can only help your corner of the world, not the whole world, or even most of it... and take this with you."
The glow of experienced connection and love infused Lucas's every cell and every iota of understanding. He was not becoming Amos, but he was receiving the knowledge he needed to go on.
"You will change this world, Lucas. Don't let it be the other way around."
The old man released a quiet sigh. Lucas opened his eyes—and saw that Amos had passed into his Great Reward.
Lucas was too numb and startled to respond. Inside, he was warm as he'd never been before, but now his friend... his friend was gone.
"But..." Lucas's fingers drifted involuntarily to his chest. He remained hope-filled even among these tidal waves of pain lashing through him. He bowed his head over the fallen man's figure. "I receive your inheritance."
. . .
It was Lucas who saved Amos's body from an unmarked grave and his memory from a lack of proper mourning. He'd never envisioned himself using the money from his odd jobs on a funeral, but there he stood, at the coffin's edge, with his parents. They were the only people in attendance.
"What did you say this man did for you again?"
Lucas looked at his mother's puzzled face and said, "He gave me a new life, Mom."
His mother shrugged. "You're lucky you had just enough cash saved up to cover most of these expenses. You realize you're all out of money now, right?"
Lucas's dad looked at him and shook his head, smiling lightly. "Spends every hard-earned dime on a funeral for a guy nobody even knew... you're a strange one, kid."
"I see that your gifted mind... will make you a mighty influence one day."
Inside, Lucas gleamed with pleasure. Outside, the swift shape of a shimmering green flying insect flitted past his shoulder.
"You're sure right, Dad." He touched the trembling little beat in his chest that had grown stronger in recent days, admiring the dragonfly's passage. "You're sure right."