It was a stormy winter morning. The dawn was hidden by a towering mass of clouds, and the chill wind was sweeping along in gusts, sending fall’s decaying leaves into the air in rustling clouds. He was huddling inside his coat, trying to conserve the little warmth he had, when he found the girl.
She was sitting on the green bench just beside the sidewalk, nibbling an apple and swinging her feet, carefree. She was dressed in a skimpy chiffon top and tiny short-shorts, and the goosebumps were standing up like quills on her milk-white arms. In her left hand was a book, 1000 Chinese Folktales. Despite her apparent blitheness, she was shivering.
He stopped. He hadn’t meant to stop, had meant to keep walking past to the door of his warm apartment a few feet away. He hadn’t wanted to stop in the middle of a rising winter storm before an apparently insane stranger, but his feet slowed of their own volition. His mouth opened, and the words came out, without thinking. “Aren’t you cold?”
She looked up. She looked Chinese, he noticed, and her long black hair was tangled across her face by the force of the wind. “I’m f-fucking freezing.”
Again, words came before he could summon them back. “Would you like to come in?” Internally, he winced. What was he doing, inviting a complete stranger into his home? This was a mistake…
She sprang to her feet. “Sure, dude. Thanks!” Dude? After hesitating for an awkward moment, he continued striding down the sidewalk. The girl followed, tossing her apple into a bush. He stopped before his door, fumbled for his key in the depths of his coat pocket. Desperate to break the silence between them, he asked her name.
“What were you doing out there?” The door swung open, and he stepped with relief into the heat, her following after.
“Waiting for D-waiting for someone.”
He stopped, abruptly. She crashed into him with a soft oof. “Look,” he said sharply, without turning, “I’m taking you in against my better judgment. You could at least tell me what the hell you were doing sitting in the middle of a storm.”
She sighed, sounding exactly like a typical exasperated teenager. “Fine. I was waiting for my boyfriend, Darren. He told me he was going to show up f-for our date, but he…” Her voice broke off into a stifled sob. He turned, alarmed. He had never been one for raising a family. He had no idea how to deal with a crying young girl. But before could get out a semblance of consolation, his temple exploded with agony. He staggered. His feet collapsed from under him, and his head hit the linoleum with a crack. Through blurry vision, he saw Alice holding a lamp, and felt vaguely ashamed before he passed out.
He woke with a splitting headache. He now fully understood the meaning behind ‘splitting’: it felt as if there was an ax cleaving his skull in half, sinking deeper with every passing moment. Groaning, he sat up stiffly. Like a wave, the events of before flooded back to him. He cursed, vividly. Then he got to his feet, rubbed his head, and went to get some aspirin.
“Shit!” He uttered vehemently when he found his cell phone on the ground, the wallet that had been resting on top of it nowhere to be seen. He opened the drawer where he had hidden a few hundred dollars inside an empty pill bottle. Gone, as well. The girl had been through. Resourceful, as well, to trick a stranger into letting her into his home. He gave her that. For the rest…well, he would stop short of throttling her if he happened to get his hands on her, but at the very least, he wanted to see her put to justice at the hands of the police. And where were the girl’s parents? Her family couldn’t be poor enough for her to be forced to steal, for her appearance, if not entirely decent for December, had been well-off enough. Muttering to himself, he dialed a number on his phone. If he couldn’t deal with the girl in person, at least he could report her.
It was a few weeks after the event, and he couldn’t help himself from wondering about Alice. She had caused him no small amount of trouble: he had been forced to withdraw more money from his already impoverished account to buy a new wallet and another cheap lamp (the one Alice bludgeoned him with had cracked) and he had to wait for a replacement credit card to be approved before he could buy anything online, which was how he usually shopped. On top of everything else, she had emptied the cookie jar. Yet after the irritation and the resentment had worn off some, curiosity, and a little sympathy, had kicked in. Who was she? What had driven her to steal? Why had she been sitting on a bench a few feet from his door, in the middle of December? If her intent had been to steal from the beginning, why hadn’t she put on a warmer outfit? And if she had wanted to inspire a stranger’s sympathy over her plight, why had she been whistling, eating an apple, and reading? It didn’t exactly suggest someone in need of dire help—even if she had been shivering. It’s only because I’m a sentimental fool, he thought ruefully, that I extended a helping hand.
Such was his state of mind when he was walking to the grocery store a few miles from his apartment (the reason he shopped online, as he didn’t own a car—his scant salary didn’t allow for one) and a familiar form flashed in his peripheral vision. His footsteps slowed, then came to a stop. Slowly, as if in a dream, he pivoted. It couldn’t be… But it was. There, sitting hunched against a wall, was the very girl who had caused him so much misery.
“You!” He blurted out accusingly, and pointed at her with a shaking hand. Several passers-by turned to give him odd looks, but he took little notice. He was overwhelmed with shock. He had only ever encountered extraordinary coincidences like this in novels, or movies. Long ago, he had decided they rarely, if ever, occurred in real life. Alice looked up, blearily. She looked considerably worse off than she had before. Her eyes were bloodshot, as if from tears and too little sleep. Her hair was lank and tangled. She was wearing the same chiffon top and shorts from before, but they were now ragged and stained. Her skin was streaked with filth, and she was shivering, for it was quite chilly. Most changed of all, however, was her demeanor. Before, she had been an ordinary enough girl, if a little odd: blithe, carefree that fortune would smile on her, because all she knew of life were the privileges her station came with. Innocent, in the way that naivety is a kind of innocence. But her eyes now, as she gazed indifferently at him, were the eyes of an adult who has learned of the harshness of the world, the cruelty it showed to the unfortunate who fell by the road of life. She knew the truth of reality, now, and somehow the change saddened him.
All the anger that had rushed to him at that moment dissipated in the face of empathy. He lowered his arm. He saw that while before, she had been thin in a fashionable way, she was now gaunt from lack of proper food. She couldn’t be more than seventeen. Still a child, in the eyes of the law, but no one had stopped to offer help or even to call the police. He offered her the hand that had pointed at her so reproachfully before. “Come on,” he said softly. “I’ll take you to my apartment.”
She had showered, and brushed, and combed her hair. She was dressed now in an old, too-small t-shirt of his that still hung like a dress on her bony frame. She sat quietly on the office chair he had drawn up for her to the small, shabby table. Two bowls of instant macaroni revolved in the microwave, and a covered pan of spinach and crumbled beef simmered on the stove. He seated himself across from her, and waited.
She met his gaze directly. Her skin was a clean, if sallow, white again, and her hair shone, but her face had a hollowed look, both in her cheeks and her haunted eyes. She spoke without him having to prompt her, in a soft, low voice totally unlike her earlier, self-assured manner. “It’s strange, I don’t know what to say first: ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘I’m sorry.’ I mean both of them…how much I can’t express. I guess I have to explain everything to explain that. God knows I owe you the explanation.”
“The day you found me, I had just been kicked out onto the street. It wasn’t really a surprise. My mom had been getting more and more pissed off at me since the night she had found me drunk and smoking pot with Darren in the living room. She kept telling me to leave the loser and get my grades up, or she was going to disown me—unofficially. I never thought she was serious. But even when the threats turned to reality, I wasn’t worried, stupidly enough. I thought Darren would come and get me, and we’d live together in his flat.”
“Some dream.” A bitter laugh. “I had been waiting on that bench for a couple of hours, waiting for Darren to meet me like we usually did. All I had managed to bring was an apple and a book I snagged off the kitchen counter when I was leaving. I was freezing my ass off, and I was a little hungry, but-get this-I was excited. I couldn’t wait to start living with Darren. We’d party every night with his friends, and I wouldn’t have to go to school anymore. Maybe we’d get married, once I was old enough. As the hours passed, and I got colder and hungrier, I started thinking maybe he was mad at me. He had asked me more than once to give him some money to buy pot with, just until he got the profits back, and I had taken some bills from my mom’s purse and given them to him. Around the time my mom started threatening to kick him out, I stopped giving him money, because she told me point-blank she knew I had been stealing from her, and because he never paid me back like he promised to. He was pretty mad about it, too—said I thought I was too good for him. So I thought he was leaving me there as punishment.”
“Then I saw you, and you saw me, and you offered to let me into your house. At first I just wanted to get indoors. Then I started thinking that maybe if I came up with a few hundred bucks, Darren wouldn’t be mad at me anymore. I felt kinda bad about stealing from you, after you had let me in. But I figured Darren and me needed it more, because he couldn’t seem to hold down a job-his bosses were always assholes-and I was going to be living with him soon. So I grabbed the first thing I could see and knocked you out when your back was turned.” Silence, dragging on long enough that he wondered whether she was going to continue. When she spoke again, it was barely above a whisper, in a voice filled with self-loathing. “But here’s the thing. I didn’t feel any worse about it than I did when I was stealing from my mother’s purse.”
She continued on, after another awful pause. “Darren never showed up. At first I wondered whether something had happened to him. It was freezing that night, and I wanted to buy food with some of the money. But I saved it. I thought he would be happy when he learned I had done that for him.” Her shoulders tensed, and a brittle edge came into her voice. “It got colder. The wind started to blow, and I could feel the coldness seeping into my flesh, into my very bones, up from the ground. I was going to buy a coat, screw Darren, when I heard footsteps behind me, and a man’s voice, laughing. There was a clank, and then something-I think it was a pipe-hit me on the back of my head. When I woke up again, my head was throbbing like hell, and all the money was gone.” He almost smiled, but was quickly sobered by her following words. “The next few days were hell. It was freezing, and the ground was no better than ice for sleeping. I drank water from a dripping pipe to fill my stomach. I couldn’t even read to pass the time—the man had taken my book too. At first I just sat on a bench, waiting, just waiting, for Darren to come by-for anyone to come by. But no one stopped, and when I got hungry enough, I went looking for food.”
“There wasn’t much I could find. I tried shoplifting. I had done it a few times before, with Darren distracting the cashier and me stuffing cigarettes into my pockets. But this time, the cashier recognized me. He pointed at me and said loudly, in front of the entire store, that I could either get out, or he could call the police to kick me out. I left, still hungry. There was some bread lying on the ground, for the pigeons, I suppose. They must have been full, because they left most of it. I ate that. And when I couldn’t find anything else, I looked in Dumpsters.”
“Worse than the cold and the hunger, though, was the knowledge that no one was looking for me. After a few days, it was obvious that Darren wasn’t going to come, and my mom wasn’t going to come. At first, I was angry that passing strangers and police barely spared me a glance, that no one seemed to care. Then, as the days passed, I grew lonely, and afraid—afraid of the men that came hunting in the night, afraid that I would die alone and filthy on the streets, like an animal. Afraid that there wouldn’t be a single soul that cared when I died. I cried a lot those first nights.”
“But I stopped crying—I stopped crying when I realized there was no reason anyone should care.”
She lifted her gaze, and stared at him with an expression he could not interpret. “So now you know. Now you know who the girl you trusted really is. And now you know-” she faltered-“that you’ve made the wrong decision.”
He was pinned by her gaze, a curious mixture of anguish and despair. He didn’t know what to say. Conflicting emotions shook him, and he could not find the words for any of them. And then he knew two words that expressed them all.
“I care.” He said, seriously, sincerely, almost fiercely. He reached across the table and took her by the shoulders, tried to express his conviction through the force of his eyes. “I care, and I’ll take care of you-you can live with me if you want-but as long as I’m alive, I won’t let you die.”
Beneath his hands, her shoulders shook. She hiccupped, and tears started their silent passage down her face, meeting at the point of her chin and dripping onto the worn wood of the table. Coming from her, broken and nearly unintelligible, was a single, repeating word. “Why? Why?” She asked, nearly sobbing.
“Because you need me to.” He said simply, and held her until her shaking subsided, and her cries petered out.