On my trip to New York last spring with the ODU art department, I passed a homeless person sitting on the ground. I know, there’s really nothing very novel about that. My group was in a hurry to catch the bus back home, it was cold, and I scurried past the person as I had so many other unfortunate people before. For some reason, though, this woman really stuck to me. On the bus ride home, I released my guilt in a fictional story I wrote on the notepad on my iPhone. I pretended things had gone differently, and lived out an alternative ending through writing.
Today I entered the piece in the International Junior Authors Short Story Contest here. I’d like to share it with you now!
Moved by an unreal force that drew me towards the helpless bundle on the ground, I turned around. Fumbling through my purse for my wallet, I found myself shaking. I flipped through my wallet to find some amount of cash I could leave with the woman for the care of the child, but there was none- only my debit card. For some reason, I could not accept that excuse. It was not enough to have tried. I looked down into her eyes. They were deep set into her head. There were wrinkles around the outside that may have been the result of laughing in another circumstance. In hers the cause was a lifetime of worry. I felt it piercing through my stomach.
I wanted to speak but my mouth was suddenly dry. Instead I just stared. I just stared shamelessly at the dark haired woman sitting awkwardly on the dirty sidewalk. I stared at the mess of a braid that was hanging loosely to the side. I stared at the dirty shirt, at the thin worn shoes. I stared at the bony neck and wrists. And mostly, I stared at the still infant the wrists were clutching with ferocity, at the quiet little person that lay in her arms, looking alertly at me. He did not squirm like most babies his age would. He was not fussing or chattering. He was just lying there staring at me, looking uncomfortable propped up against the bony figure that was his mother. A drop of water fell from my cheek to my shirt.
“What do you need most?” Was all I could think to ask the woman.
I hadn’t spoken loudly. She did not answer immediately, and I began to wonder if she heard me, or of she even spoke English. The olive tone in her skin could have been a number of ethnicities, and I began to wonder what language she might speak. My face must have shown my concern that she could not communicate, because she sat up straighter with what appeared to spend an immense amount of energy. She shifted the weight of the baby a bit in her arms- he did not seem to notice. His eyes never left me. She started to speak, but began coughing severely. Her entire frail body was convulsing with every cough, and the baby was being shaken by her deep involuntary hacking.
Without thinking I crouched down next to her and held out my arms. She managed to set him into my outstretched hands between coughs, and I sat on the ground holding the precious child while his mother regained breath. I was concerned she may be choking, but she waved her hand and nodded her head in my direction in a way that meant, “I am fine, this happens frequently. It will pass shortly,” so instead I locked my eyes on the beautiful boy that was in my arms and studied his features with a hunger I had never felt before.
His skin was lighter than his mothers, but it still had a brownish tint. His eyes were wider, fuller. They were a warm brown with golden flecks of fire. His eyelashes were long, dark and thick; they looked heavy. He was thin, but not the bony sickly thin that his mother was. His lips were expressionless. I could not see fear or relief. He showed neither happiness nor sadness. It was almost as if his emotions were muted for his own safety. The ground was wet. I felt it make its way through my jeans, long johns, and underwear to startle my bottom with its coldness. I looked to the woman to see what she was sitting on- nothing. Her pants were drenched through. It made no difference. She was still coughing and hacking. She was slowly dying. She had little time to worry about being wet.
The few seconds I had taken my eyes off of the child, I felt him begin to squirm uneasily. I looked back at him with the urgency he was silently demanding and he was still again. I caught another water droplet before it could fall on his face.
The woman was quieting down. I held the child’s hands in my right hand, and fumbled back through my purse for a pen and paper with my left. I had no paper, only a Starbucks receipt- $4.45 I had just paid for a drink while these people were sitting outside on the street. My stomach churned. If only I had left some coffee to offer the choking woman to calm her fit. I turned the receipt over and handed it to her along with the pen. I had to know what I could do for them. She had to find a way to tell me.
Still catching her breath, the woman understood what I wanted, what I needed. She held the pen as steadily as she could and scribbled-