Perhaps it had been his dread about coming to Atlanta again, or perhaps he had begun to believe in the things the Braunstein Center aimed to teach. But Levi had purchased a gold-plated charm and, following a rabbinical blessing, added it to his purple string bracelet from the Braunstein Center. The charm was the Hebrew letters for “HEAL”—Mem Hey Shin—one of the Braunstein Center’s 72 Names of God. He had been drawn to it when, during a morning meditation, he and the others had been told that, when the meditation was finished, they were to open their eyes. Before them would be a large chart, upon which—in Aramaic–would be the Braunstein Center’s 72 Names of God. Levi was aware that various Jewish sects and numerous Kabbalist groups also used the 72 Names, although the Braunstein Center’s chart varied from the others in that the Braunstein Center chart referred to 72 emanations or energies present through God; something God created over the 72 days of creation the Braunstein Center alleged took place at the beginning of existence and to which, after all—as with all religions, Levi thought– no one could prove they were right or wrong.
As Levi understood it, other religions viewed the 72 Names of God as being drawn from three lines of Exodus, three lines which, in Hebrew, possessed exactly the same number of characters in each and which, when the three lines were combined and divided, revealed a code of 72 three-word Names. Levi liked this sort of mathematic concept, this type of Bible code, but the Braunstein Center did not subscribe to it. In their simple spirituality, it took God—or The Candle—72 days—not six—to create Heaven, Earth, and a thousand merchandising opportunities. And each name of God represented what was created that day. On one of those days, the Braunstien Center salespeople-called-rabbis claimed God had created platelets and other tools of healing the body, whether the body be a human, animal, plant, or planet. And, following the meditation, when the rabbi told the morning class to open their eyes and make note of which Name their eyes went to, Levi noted his went directly to the Hebrew word for Heal.
He did not understand Hebrew, could not read Hebrew, and had never paid much attention to the Braunstein Center’s variation on the 72 Names of God metaphysical theme. But, at that moment, that connection made sense to him, for just that morning, he had thought of how broken he was, how lonely he was, and how—despite how much he missed Damien—how much he did not want to come back here, to Atlanta, just to see him. For it was here, he felt, where he had been broken. And it was here, he feared, where he would break once more. But with his eyes on “Heal”, he realized that was what he wanted most. To find a way to repair his dignity and his mind, his heart and that highly-doubted soul everyone else touted so much. And so, as planned by the Braunstein Center’s product developer, yet another member of the Braunstein Center visited the bookshop later that morning to buy something: his name had been Levi Hastings and the purchase was a charm that resembled the Hebrew letters for Heal and, at an additional cost, a blessing by the ROD—the Rabbi On Duty whose sole purpose was to—for an additional fee–recite a jumble of Hebrew-esque over any requested purchase.
The atheist in him, kindly berated by sweet Father Bergman just a little while ago on Peachtree for not believing, resented the momentary glimpse he gave to the gold charm knotted into the weave of the purple yarn bracelet on his wrist. Silly. It seemed so silly. But he found himself looking at it again, trying to sear the shape of its letters into his mind, as an amulet against the nightmare he was sure was about to come as he and Damien walked side by side down Tenth Street.
It was a charming part of Atlanta, this particular patch of Midtown. A rainbow-colored crosswalk shouted “Welcome!” to Atlanta’s gay community, which had largely salvaged Midtown when it appeared poised to crumble into urban decay, the gay community reinvigorating it with businesses and a populace that cared for and nurtured the neighborhood, saving vintage homes and buildings and making a not-so-pleasant neighborhood one of the more desirable residential nooks of the city. Damien was noticing this as they walked, Damien’s arm slung around Levi’s shoulder, sipping on a cup from Caribou Coffee, fondly watching a gay couple pushing their baby in a stroller.
Levi knew one of those men they passed but, his face turned to the street as if searching passing traffic, successfully escaped notice. Even had the man recognized Levi, everyone in Atlanta Levi had known knew he had left; the man would likely have assumed it was someone who looked like Levi Hastings, that guy who used to volunteer at the GLBT community center, rather than the refugee himself.
He hadn’t come back to see old friends. He had come to see Damien. And to reclaim some part of himself. Quick hellos with long-forgotten acquaintances—those phony, “How have you been? I haven’t seen you in years!” chats–could be bypassed on this trip.
Tenth Street was tight in this part of Atlanta, apartment buildings and shops built right up to the narrow sidewalk, the street sandwiched between sidewalks busy with cars racing to get through the next traffic light. And then, suddenly and without warning, the street became more spacious as the apartment building on the left ended and the seemingly endless expanse of Piedmont Park stretched out ahead of them and to their left.
A gorgeous, beautiful park; Atlanta’s grand public park, the place everyone went to escape the city but still remain within it. Festivals, concerts, art shows, usually. And, on one day a few years before, where the worst of the attack’s shootings had happened.
He paused for a moment, took a slow breath, said nothing, and walked into the park along a paved path of gray concrete splitting up the mounds of patchy, early spring grass. Damien followed quietly, as they walked toward something new since Levi had last been here, having only last been here the day he was shot. A cluster of tourists and others had already surrounded it, were posing for photos in front of it—some with an appropriate solemnness, others with a mindless grin, and others more serious-minded taking photos as reference points or to later look upon and regard with sadness. It was frightening to Levi, this interpretation of what had happened that day and the struggle of some to survive, grotesque and painful. He felt hollow and weak in front of it, his emotions from that long-ago day rising.
Damien squeezed him and whispered, “We can go back to the hotel if you want,” when he heard Levi’s breathing stutter and saw his chin shake. And it would have been easier to turn around, but Levi shook his head and resumed walking toward the enormous monument surrounded by people taking photos.
Upon a giant slab of what appeared to be marble were several statues; countless statues, actually, as they all merged at one point with the others. An abstract depiction of the shootings had been decided against, although the other monuments throughout the park—all placed in spaces which would still allow the park to be used for festivals, concerts, and art shows while allowing for the victims and survivors and that day to be memorialized—were permitted to be designed less literally. But the monument before them showed with naked bluntness upon its marble slab, statues representing a mass of bodies, young and old, some laying flat to the ground, others reaching heavenward for help, some crawling—as Levi had to crawl—from beneath the bodies of the dead. Some statues had no head.
“Momma had a baby and her head popped off. . .”
With a need to deny his own memory, his eyes turned from the monument to the ground, recalling the sight of the screaming, disbelieving woman who held her baby’s corpse, and how it had taken Levi a horrifying moment to realize that the indecipherable bundle she clung to her chest had little arms and little legs but had been, somehow, decapitated.
An innocent baby.
How she screamed. How she cried. Little bundle of joy. Little bundle of blood.
Before he knew it, he was overtaken by being back here, his memories, and the monument and the tourists and the sounds he recalled and the sights he now saw once more.
The park all blurred away as tears he had never truly shed rose, were held back, but broke through, burning his eyes, rising with a guttural sob from his throat, and racking his body with agony.