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The restaurant smells delicious. Even from outside. I swallow, telling myself not to focus on anything but my current task. But it was hard. So hard. The door to the kitchen was open, allowing the cooling spring air into the back of the restaurant, and allowing me to see and hear inside. The light illuminates an area right behind the restaurant, providing a source of light in the darkened lot behind it. The laughter and jokes of the chefs and waiters were swept out of the kitchen on a small breeze, and were carried to me easily. I feel a sudden pang of jealousy for all the customers in there that were ordering and eating anything they wanted.
I wished I could.
Something scurries up against my leg, and I step back, glancing down. A rat, entirely unafraid of my presence, was scratching and burrowing its way into the dumpster’s contents. It emerged, a crust of bread in its mouth, and waddled away. I sigh, realizing with a jolt my situation. Here I was, behind this restaurant – not in it – dumpster diving for tonight’s dinner.
The work is gross, but, unfortunately, I’m much too used to it. I dig out half a pepperoni pizza that someone was stupid enough not to ask for a box for, and find a carryout box to carry it in. Then I climb out of the dumpster and head back down the road.
Back towards ‘home.’
The last rays of the sun shine hopefully, but dimming all the same. Within minutes it’s dark out.
Then the overpass comes into view. The highway above roars, and for a second, my heart beats wildly, because I hate the noise that cars make going over bridges. That hollow tick-cha, tick-cha sound that echoes underneath the bridge. But I press on, and soon, I’m under the bridge, and my eyes search in the dark for the box.
And then I see it. He must have moved it out of the wind a little more, because it’s not where I left it. It’s up by the small angle that’s formed by the cement slope and the bridge; there’s a flat part of dirt that the box is sitting on. I jog up the slope. “How’s life?” I call out, so he knows it’s me.
A head pokes out of the box. “Couldn’t be better,” he returns.
I smile. It’s our little code, one that we developed to use to let the other know that we’re approaching. If the other doesn’t respond, we don’t approach until we here a reply. So that we don’t scare each other.
I reach the box, which is about the size of a large dog cage, and he scoots over for me. I crawl in. He has a small votive candle lit, which, despite the cardboard box, he does almost every night.
He looks at me, gives me a welcoming smile, but then his eyes dart to the pizza box. I look down guiltily at it, and for a moment I wonder if it will always be like this. Just the two of us. Eating somebody else’s leftovers. But I push the thoughts away quickly.
“Sorry it’s pepperoni. All there was.” I say.
“It’s okay. I’ll just peel them off.” He replies. He hates pepperoni. I love it. But he opens the box, takes a slice, carefully pulls of the circles of meat, and drops them back onto the box.
Then he takes a bite. It’s cold, but you couldn’t tell by his reaction. He leans back on his haunches as he chews, smiling. “Best. Pizza. Ever.”
I suppress a chuckle. I just wish it were truly our pizza. I help myself to a piece, piling on his unwanted pepperoni. But I can only eat a few bites of it; I’m not that hungry. He helps himself to two more slices before he sits back, pats his stomach, and mutters something about being full.
I reach into my pack that lies in the far corner, and pull out a crumpled sheet of salvaged tin foil. I use it to wrap up the two remaining pieces of our dinner. He blows the candle out, and we let it smoke itself out for a moment. A small breeze blows into the box, sending strands of my shoulder-length hair into my face. I tuck it back behind my ear, where I like it.
Then I pull the end of the box in, closing us off from the world. I lie down, and he puts his back to mine, for warmth. Although the winter is over, spring can sometimes be brutal with its chilly night air, so I cover us up with the two blankets that were in the corner.
“Goodnight, Erica,” he says.
I hesitate. It would be a good night if… But I stop myself, and say my routine reply, “Night, Ryker.”
I don’t sleep. At least not enough to call it sleep. I doze off a few times, but the noise of the highway right above us makes me uneasy. What are the statistics for bridges collapsing on people? I decide it’s best if I try not to ask myself questions, but my mind wanders.
Finally, the sun peeks through the cracks in the cardboard ‘door,’ and I actually have an excuse to get up. Even though it’s early morning, I can already tell that today will be, most likely, muggy and hot. The cars above continue their whooshing noises, but, having heard it the whole night, I’m not as worried now.
I glance at my watch, a possession I couldn’t do without, and see that it’s 8:37. Time to get a move on. Where to? No idea. Ryker usually decides. It’s something he’s good at, and something I let him have control over to keep him busy.
“C’mon Ryker, let’s get up and go.” I nudge him with my sneaker. He stirs. I nudge him again, and he sits up, running his hand through his short brown hair.
The disassembling doesn’t take long, probably because we have a routine. I take everything out of the box. Ryker folds the box, I fold the blankets. We pack the blankets in his backpack, and anything else that will fit into mine. Then we’re ready to go.
He starts out carrying the box. We’ll trade later on, but for now, he holds it under his arm. We start walking, and soon come to an intersection. I hate intersections, because everybody gets a chance to look at us.
Like we’re some sort of freaks or something.
But what I hate most is their eyes. The pity or sympathy in their eyes as they stare out their windows at Ryker and I makes me angry. I don’t need their pity.
I don’t need anything from them.
I’ve survived fine by myself.
Ryker presses the crossing button, and he and I wait.
Off to our left, a woman rolls down her passenger window. She motions to me, and I go over and peer into her car. She’s reaching over the empty passenger seat, holding out a ten dollar bill. “God bless you. I’ll be praying for you and your brother.”
I knew it.
I accept the money with a forced smile and thanks. While we need money, I hate that we have to get it this way. I can feel her eyes watching me as I walk over to Ryker, turning the bill over in my hand. Ten bucks.
There’s another thing; Ryker and I aren’t related. He’s eleven, and I’m sixteen. But he’s not my brother. And I’m not his sister.
Ryker looks at the money in my hand, then over at the woman who still watches us. He smiles at her, waves his hand. Thankfully, the signal has turned; we can cross, so I grab his shoulder and steer him onto the crosswalk.
When we reach the other side, Ryker asks to see the bill. I hand it to him. “Don’t lose it,” I mutter grumpily. “That’s lunch.”
“What’s wrong?” He asks me.
Ryker looks up at me. His dark brown eyes, his face dotted with freckles, the unkempt, dark haired bangs that he was forever pushing out of his eyes, he looks so innocent. Yet the streets have forced him to see things way beyond his eleven years of existence.
I’ll never forget the day Ryker and I met. It was two years ago, in a local park up in Redwood Falls, Minnesota. I had spent the night on a park bench, something I was used to doing. When I woke up and put my feet to the ground, I stepped on something, and that something grunted. It was a little boy, curled up under my bench on the grass. I’d stepped on his hand.
“What are you doing?” I asked him, a little angry that he had been in such close proximity to me throughout the night. I wasn’t frightened; it wasn’t too unusual for me to see kids on the streets. Heck, I was one. But he was so young. He rolled out from underneath the bench, and stared at me with those brown eyes.
I repeated my question. He looked like he was about to cry. So instead of pressing matters, I took a more cordial approach. “What’s your name?”
“Ryker.” He had replied.
“I’m Erica.” I said, trying my best to give a friendly smile. There was a moment or two of silence. “Hungry?”
He nodded anxiously. I stood, picked up my bag, motioned for him to follow, and headed down the sidewalk. He followed a few paces behind.
With five bucks I had found the other day, I had bought each of us a cheap donut from a gas station. He got chocolate milk, and I got orange juice. We sat in silence outside of the small station, finishing breakfast.
From that moment, we unofficially adopted the other as our sibling. Our companion. It was an unspoken agreement, but it was something we both wanted. A friend.
Besides, I couldn’t leave him. I couldn’t leave this nine year old kid on the streets. The streets had and have made me tough, but I’m not calloused enough to refuse a kid friendship.
And…deep down, I knew I wanted a friend as much as he needed one.
So we stuck together. We traveled. Since that day in Minnesota two years ago, we’ve traveled all the way down to Georgia, which is where we are now. In those two years, Ryker and I have grown so close. I don’t remember what I did before he was with me...nor can I imagine life without him. He’s my little adopted brother. He’s my best friend.
Sure, we’ve had arguments. But those moments are wiped off my radar when I realize how close I’ve come to losing him. On a few occasions.
Once, coming through the very edge of Kansas, we got stuck in a nasty storm. A tornado. He and I were running to a gas station that was just a minute down the road to take shelter, when all of a sudden, I turned around and he wasn’t there. I can’t really describe the panic I felt. My entire body got a tingly, crawling sensation, when I couldn’t find him right away.
Turned out, he had tripped and rolled down a small ravine by the road. He was fine, but it scared me. We made it to the gas station in time, and the tornado had veered off on a different course, and within minutes, had completely dissipated.
Another time, in Tennessee, he and I got separated while crossing a busy street. I found him a few minutes later, sitting on a bench, waiting for me to come to him. Smart kid. If I had been the younger one, I would’ve gone crazy, running every which direction.
But in the two years since we adopted each other, we’ve never told the other our past. Never felt the need or want to explain away how we became street dwellers.
Or, in more simple terms…homeless.
He has a past, I have a past. But I don’t like talking about mine, and I’m sure that it’s the same for him. And that’s okay.
I push the memories back, and soon realize I’m beginning to see signs for the beach. Ryker still has the money in his hand, and he’s kicking stones along on the sidewalk. I check my watch. It’s almost eleven.
“Can you hold this for a while?” He asks.
“Yeah, sure,” I say. He passes off the cardboard box to me, flexes his hands, and then shoves them in his jean pockets. “Getting hungry?”
Ryker shrugs. “A little. You know…the beach is only forty miles away.” He points to another sign.
Only? It’s my turn to shrug. “And?”
He hesitates, but when he does speak, he looks up and gives me an impish grin. “I’ve never seen the ocean.”
Never seen the ocean? Who hasn’t seen the ocean? And then I remember; I don’t know where he was born. Or where he lived. Or who his parents are. I don’t really know anything about this Ryker, except that we both have an unspoken pact that the past is the past; and what we know about the other now is all we need to know.
I glance down at him. “Then let’s go.”
His face splits into a smile. “Really?”
“You mean it? I’m honestly going to see the ocean?”
I’m laughing now. He’s just so gosh-darn sweet. And simple. “Yes, I mean it!” I elbow his shoulder playfully.
The conversation is easy and light as we walk. Pretty soon, we come to a gas station, and it’s nearing two in the afternoon.
I sit on our box on the curb outside while Ryker goes inside to order. Normally, since I have a quasi-type-A personality, I would go in and order, to make sure that the money is spent frugally, but today, to give him a sense of control, I let him do the honors of breaking that precious ten.
“Here you go.” He hands me a to-go bag with a sandwich in it. I don’t question what’s in the sandwich; I’m happy to have my hands on my own food.
Ryker digs into his. We share a large Gatorade, the red flavor, Ryker’s favorite. He looks over at me. “Like it?” He asks as best he can with his mouth stuffed.
I grin and nod. After ten minutes, we decide to pack up and head out. I continue carrying the box, and Ryker holds the Gatorade. Our going is slow, slower than I would be going if I were on my own, just because his eleven-year-old legs can only walk so fast. But he’s a good sport and a good talker.
“I’ve seen those postcards in some of the stations we stop at.” He says eagerly, bouncing along beside me. “The ones with the pictures of the beaches. And the oceans. And those cool star-looking things!”
“Yeah…starfish…” he says dreamily. “You’ve been to the ocean before?”
I nod. “Yep. When...” It would be breaking the pact. But I decided that, for this simple question, it didn’t matter. “When I was in Virginia.”
There’s a brief pause. “Oh.” Is all he can say. But then he’s back to his usual excited self. “Was it really like the pictures?”
“Just like them.”
Ryker takes a big breath, and I expect for him to say something, but he doesn’t. Maybe’s he’s imagining what it will smell like.
We walk in easy silence for about two hours. Soon it’s nearing five o’clock. I decide it’s about time to set up for the night, before it gets dark.
“Where to?” I ask him.
He chews on the inside of his cheek as he looks around thoughtfully. We’re on the outskirts of a town we just passed through, and it’s fairly quiet out here. There are fields on both sides of the roads, and one of them is a pasture. The occasional car zooms past, but other than that, it’s a huge change from where we ended up last night.
Ryker points. “How ‘bout over there? In the shed.” I look to where he’s pointing and, sure enough, on the far side of the pasture, there’s a lean-to livestock shed. The pasture is empty.
Within minutes we’re at the lean-to. It takes us a another minute or so to decide whether or not to actually set the box up, or to just lay it down and sleep on it. We choose the latter, since the shed already provides shelter.
We sit down, and Ryker unpacks the blankets, and I pull out the two pieces of pizza that I wrapped up last night. We each have one.
And then we watch the sun set.
We sit with our backs against the lean-to, and Ryker sort of leans into my left shoulder. Tonight’s sun is beautiful – it always is – but tonight, since we’re away from all the city streets, it seems extra special.
Ryker’s words interrupt my thoughts of the beauty of the scene. “I want to see the sun set on the beach.”
I sneak a peek at him. His cheek is against my shoulder, and his brown eyes and innocent face gaze steadily out at the sunset. “Okay buddy.”
There’s quiet. Soon, the crickets begin to chirp in the fields. The sun is almost hidden now.
“Let’s make a promise.” He mutters quietly. “Every time we see the sunset, no matter where we are, we’ll think of the other person. To keep each other close.”
I smile. So simple. “We’ll always be close,” I say, as I lift my left arm up and wrap it around him, pulling him in.
“I know. But promise.”
“I promise, Ryker.”
The sun fades, and we’re left in darkness. Ryker pulls a blanket over him, and I do the same, and we lay there on our cardboard box. I sleep on the outside, by the opening.
“Goodnight, Taylor.” He whispers.
It would be a good night if… But I stop myself. Like I do every night. And tonight, my reply is as it’s always been. “Night, Ryker.”
The morning is extremely peaceful. No cars buzzing by overhead, no car horns going off, no neighbors yelling at their one-floor-above-neighbors to keeping the ‘bleeping’ music down. It’s just us, the birds, and a horse.
In an instant I’m up, flinging the blanket off me. Sure enough, standing in the opening of the shelter, there’s a brown horse. My heart races, and for once, my street mentality fails me. I’ve never encountered a horse before.
Being as still as possible (do horses attack?), I nudge Ryker with my sneaker. I whisper as inaudibly as I can, “Ryker…”
He stirs, but I shush him with another gentle jab of my foot. Finally, he sees the…problem. He stands, rubs his eyes, and then focuses on the beast that’s blocking our way out of here.
Then Ryker smiles. He takes a step forward, and my heart skips. I hold out a cautioning arm, but he pushes it back, and continues forward, his own arm outstretched, palm flat.
Where’s this coming from?
“Hey boy.” He murmurs. I know nothing about horses, but from the way this one is standing, he looks alert with the way his ears twitch. “Easy boy.”
Ryker is now just two feet from the animal. “That’s it, atta boy…” his hand touches the tip of the horses face. The nose, I guess.
I glance out of the shed, to see if someone’s watching, or worse, if there are more horses. I can’t see any.
When I look back at Ryker, he’s by the horse’s shoulder, running his hands all along the animal. “Ryker!” I whisper angrily.
He looks back at me, and flashes me a wide grin. “It’s okay.” He says in a normal voice. “You don’t have to whisper. He’s friendly. Come here.” He motions me over.
I hesitate, but, trusting my friend, I walk carefully over to them. I hold out a hand and set it on the horse’s nose. When he doesn’t shove it away, I take it as clearance, and begin to stroke him the way Ryker is.
“He’s so…..sweet.” I manage, trying to think of a word that would describe this horse, when I knew nothing about them. “Where did you learn to do this?” I ask Ryker, and immediately regret it.
His eyes drop for a second to the ground, but then he regains himself. “I used to squat in a stable. When I was little…er.” He adds the ‘er’ and chuckles. “The horses were great company.”
We stand there for another ten minutes or so, stroking the horse. Ryker seems so comfortable around it. Several times he looks at me with a smile on his face. I glance at my watch. Almost eleven. Wow, we slept in late!
“Ryker, we should go.” I say reluctantly. While I’m not into animals much, this horse has definitely made my morning interesting.
“Yeah, we should.” He agrees. Without hesitating, he steps away from the horse and begins to pack up. I wonder to myself why he’s so eager to leave. And then I remember; the beach. Of course, this kid is anxious to see the beach.
After a two or three minutes, we’re ready to go, and we each give our four-legged friend another hearty pat on the neck before we scoot past him.
We climb over the fence, and make our way back to the road, following signs to the beach. I begin to wonder about lunch. And dinner. We hardly ever have breakfast.
But we keep walking. And walking. Twenty miles until the beach. Our bellies are growling, but neither of us complain. Occasionally, we’ll take a break and sit on a bench, a curb, park swings. But then we’re up again and going.
We pass the box back and forth. Share sips of the remaining Gatorade. Finally, at almost three in the afternoon, we enter another city. There are signs for the beach…‘and it’s only a mile away!’ Ryker points out. It’s small, but a city nonetheless, and my street smarts begin to awaken. People brush past us, and I take the box from Ryker, so he doesn’t hit people with it.
I look for a dumpster. After walking for a few minutes, we see one, and immediately turn toward it. The alley’s dark, because of the tallish buildings. I do a quick scan of the area, and nobody’s around. I tell Ryker to stand by our stuff while I go diving. He does, leaning against a brick building, arms crossed, humming a song.
The pickings are meager, and there’s nothing I really want, so I climb out. “Not much. Let’s keep going. We’ll find another one.” I grab the box and my backpack, Ryker grabs his, and we head back onto the street.
After about four blocks, Ryker stops in his tracks. “What?” I ask him.
His face looks like it did that first morning in the park, like he was about to cry. “The…the Gatorade. In the alley…I didn’t pick it up.”
“Aw, Ryker, it’s okay. We’ll just –”
“No! It’s not. We have to get it, there’s still some in it…” he turns around and begins to jog back. I quickly overtake him.
I grab his shoulder. “I’ll get it. It’s by the dumpster?” He nods. “Okay. Umm…here,” I look around, and realize we’re standing by another alley. “Just stand right in here, okay?” I set him and our stuff just inside the alley. He sinks to the ground, hands covering his eyes. “Ryker. It’s alright. Don’t worry.”
I take off back up the four blocks, and almost run past the alleyway. I charge inside, see the Gatorade sitting by the dumpster, grab it, whip around, and run back out.
I run down the sidewalk, down the four blocks where Ryker’s waiting. I stop, panting, by the building where I left him.
He’s not there.
I force myself to remain calm, but my head is spinning with worry. I notice that our backpacks are missing. I peer down into the darkened alley, and my heart literally stops. I feel it freeze in my chest for a few seconds, then resume its pounding with fierce intensity.
Or maybe the sound is my feet against the pavement, running toward the turn in the alley. I round the corner, and my entire body goes cold.
Ryker lays there. His shirt is soaked with blood.
The entire world goes silent. I can only hear my breathing, and it’s still heavy from my run. Now it’s laced with fear as I look at this horror scene. I kneel to him, brush his bangs from his eyes.
Then his eyes flutter. Those beautiful brown eyes gaze at me confusedly.
I can’t say anything. My mouth seems glued shut. Maybe because I know that if I open it, I’ll start screaming.
“He…he tried…take…packs…” he mutters to me. “I wouldn’t let…him…”
Who? Who had tried to steal our backpacks? But I don’t ask him, because it doesn’t matter. The packs are gone, and my Ryker is here, hurt. “Sshh, it’s okay Ryker.”
I look down at his chest. There’s a hole right below where his heart is. Knife or gunshot, I don’t know. I try to take a breath, but all that comes out is a shudder.
A wet, bloody hand reaches for mine. I look into his eyes. “The beach…” he mutters. There’s an eager glint in his eyes.
I feel a pang of sorrow. He can’t go to the beach. Not now. But I don’t tell him this. “Yeah, okay. We’ll go in a little bit.” I push those persistent bangs out of the way again. He nods weakly.
I don’t know how I’m not sobbing. Maybe the adrenaline. Maybe to be strong for him. Whatever it is, I’m glad for it.
Ryker looks up at me again. He grins. “How’s life?”
I suppress a choke of…what? Laughter, anger? I don’t know.
Push those bangs back.
“Couldn’t be better.” I whisper to him. I put my head next to his, and can hear his raspy breathing in my ear.
“You should see it from up here.” He whispers.
Something in my gut flips. I sit back, and find his eyes staring vacantly past me. Numbly, I run my hand over his eyes, closing them.
Then I realize it’s real.
That’s when I lose it. The dam that had been holding back the tears suddenly broke, and I cried like the little girl I used to be.
I hold his hand, as though to comfort him, when really it just helps me. Just to feel his hand in mine, like it was during nights he was scared.
I realize it’s dark out. How long have I been sitting here? I don’t care. Don’t bother to check my watch.
Then I hear a whisper. I look at Ryker, but he’s…gone. But it’s his voice. He’s saying something to me. I can feel it. So I close my eyes and listen.
I take in a shuddery breath. It takes every ounce of me to say it back to him. Takes every ounce to let go. To say goodbye. To say that something was good when my whole life just died in front of me.
But I do it for him. Because he’s the only thing in my life that truly was good.
“Good night, Ryker,”
Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art....
It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things
which give value to survival.
The ocean roars as the next wave crashes on the beach. I tilt my head up to the sun to catch its rays. It’s gorgeous out.
It’s been a year since Ryker died. I’m seventeen. After seeing the brutality that Ryker faced, I’m much more cautious on the streets. But I haven’t left them. Nothing’s changed for me.
I still travel, but it’s always along the coast. I never go inland, because every night, I have to be able to sit on the beach. The place he so eagerly wanted to see and never did.
I have to think of him.
I have to keep him close.
So every night, I sit and watch the sun set.