"Get off your dead ass and get a job," the man spat out, stepping over Jackie's outstretched legs.
"And a Merry Christmas to you too," Jackie muttered in reply, pulling his worn jacket tighter around his thin, almost emaciated body. He bent his legs, wrapping his arms around his knees, shivering so hard his teeth chattered.
Dropped in the city, deposited like so much discarded trash and forbidden to return home, he was slowly wasting away.
Deep in his soul he felt the pull of the mountains. From where he sat, he could see them in the far distance between the tall buildings surrounding him.
He had lived there once, not so long ago, taking his responsibilities seriously and yet carefree when he had the chance to escape them. He was loved by his family and liked by his friends.
Then it all changed because of one covetous male who had the power to destroy him--to banish him.
For the last two weeks he had been here in the canyons of steel and concrete. He'd watched the people as they passed him, their faces drawn, tense. They rarely smiled as they hurried on their way and when they did, it seemed false--a mask put on to entertain others they were with, hiding their despair.
The only saving grace was the parks--small islands of life in the midst of an area destroyed by greed and desire. He'd found one not far from where he now sat, along the edge of Cherry Creek. The banks were snow-covered, the trees stood stark against the whiteness, enclosed between tall, concrete walls with the noise of the city just beyond. Only there did he see true smiles at times when the people who walked the path beside the creek inhaled deeply of the air, which was somehow fresher than elsewhere in the city.
A sound brought him back to the present, the clatter of some coins landing on the pavement beside him. He scooped them up, looking for the donor. A girl, perhaps a few years older than him, smiled briefly then hurried on her way.
"Not much, but it'll buy you a burger."
Jackie nodded as a young man dropped down beside him. His name was Solo, which he'd explained when Jackie had asked, had nothing to do with Star Wars and everything to do with how he lived. "Alone and glad of it," he'd confessed.
They'd become--if not friends--at least companions of a sort. Solo had taken Jackie under his wing, showing him the best and safest spots to beg for change or, as he called it, to 'spange'. He'd also warned Jackie to be careful where he bedded down for the night. Jackie had learned that lesson quickly. The police would roust anyone they found sleeping in public, telling them there were shelters and they'd better get to one.
"Roofs," Solo had told him. "The cops are too lazy to go up there--or too fat." He'd snorted in amusement when Solo said that, but Jackie had found out it was the truth. Roofs weren't all that safe; he'd had to find spots not already claimed by other homeless people. But if he was careful, he could.
Now Jackie said, "I'll split it with you," to Solo's comment about the coins being enough to buy a burger.
"Naw, you don't have to. I made out all right a bit earlier. Matter of fact, pocket the change and come with me. I'll treat you to a real meal of sorts."
Solo jumped to his feet again, holding out a hand, then pulling Jackie up when he took it. "Damn, Jackie, you don't weigh nothin'. You gotta eat or you'll die."
Jackie shook his head, his long, tangled hair flying out then settling on his shoulders seconds later. "I'm just naturally thin. I told you that."
"Yeah, well I'm not really believing it. Still there's nothing I can do about it but feed you, so come on."
Jackie wondered why Solo cared but wasn't about to argue the fact, so he trailed along behind him to a sandwich shop a block from where he'd been sitting.
"Take your pick. The meatball one's the best but..." Solo shrugged as he ordered one. The clerk behind the counter looked at them askance until Solo pulled some bills from his jeans pocket.
Jackie read over the menu on the wall then asked, shyly, for a tuna club. Solo shook his head. "You need real meat, Jackie."
"I don't, umm, eat meat."
"Come on. I've seen you with a burger a time or two." Then Solo frowned. "Or not. You go for the damned fish sandwiches." He turned his attention back to the clerk. "If that's what he wants, give it to him." He counted out the cash, laying it on the counter, and a few minutes later they left the shop, bags in hand.
"We coulda eaten in there," Solo said, "but we were getting real bad looks from some of the customers. Trust me on that one. We don't want any hassles."
"It's okay. Can we go down by the creek?"
"Yeah, sure. Why not."
When they got there, Solo brushed snow off the lone bench along the side of the bike path and they sat. As they ate, Solo said between hungry bites, "So you never told me how you ended up on the streets."
Jackie used the story he'd heard other kids tell. "I got kicked out of the house because, well--"
"Your folks abused you?"
"Not my folks." Jackie wasn't willing to bad-mouth his parents, even though they were far away and would never know he had. "My, umm, uncle. But I couldn't tell anyone because they wouldn't have believed me," he blurted out, dipping his head so Solo wouldn't see the lie written across his face.
"Shit. Like he came on to you?"
"Umm, humm." Jackie quickly ate the last of his sandwich, still not looking at Solo.
"Some people are real bastards, but it happens. Too often, to hear some of the other kids tell it. There's this one chick..." He went on to tell the story of a girl he once knew who had been raped repeatedly by her father and her brother before she finally decided she'd rather take her chances living on the streets than let it happen any more. "She's dead now. OD'd on some bad meth some son-of-a-bitch gave her. Rumor has it he wanted to fuck her and she wasn't going for it. He dosed her up so she wouldn't fight him."
"Humans are... are bastards," Jackie muttered, balling up the bag his sandwich had come in.
Solo chuckled. "Humans, as compared to animals?"
"Umm, yeah," Jackie replied quickly as he stood. "Can we walk? It's sorta nice down here. Quiet."
"You can. I got some place I gotta be." Solo eyed Jackie, then handed him a couple of dollars. When Jackie protested, he said, "Like I told you, I got lucky. Take it and buy supper, or breakfast, or something. Food. Real food. Not the crap you find in the dumpsters. Got it?"
"Yes," Jackie said quietly. "Thank you. And got it." He watched when Solo hurried away. His hands shook as he stuffed the bills into his pocket beside the change he'd gotten earlier and he realized he was freezing. He'd never felt the cold like this until he'd come to the city.
I need to... to find somewhere warm.
But he knew that wasn't an option. Warmer clothes however... He'd heard kids talking about a place where they gave them out for free if someone needed them. Closing his eyes, he tried to remember where they said it was. Somewhere close to the Mall he thought. But where?
It took a while--and stopping to ask a girl he'd seen around before--but he finally found the spot he was looking for, a drop-in center not all that far from where he and Solo had just been. As he walked in the door, he halted--so many kids, so much noise, chatter, movement--and warmth. He inched his way along one wall, trying to find the part he'd heard about, the area where they had the clothes.
"Need some help?" The voice coming from somewhere behind him sounded friendly.
He spun around, nodding. "Ple... please. I heard I could get a... a jacket maybe and..."
The man nodded. "You can. It's this way."