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The sharp winter air stings my skin, jabbing its furious winds at every possible object in sight. I shrug further into my thick black jacket, hoping for warmth to absorb me.
But odds are, that’s not going to happen today.
Winter only started two weeks ago but it’s already growing fiercely impossible for me to survive it. If the temperature decreases anymore tonight, I’ll be a corps by midnight.
I continue to march down the sidewalk, witnessing girls – some younger than I – being claimed by men and driven away. None of the girls do what they do for a hobby; it’s for survival. Most of them come around during the days when the weather is at its most extremes; other times it’s when they are broke.
But I will not give in. I can handle myself. I don’t need some greedy man to claim ownership over me – a human being – and ‘take care of me’. I can do that on my own. Of course, there’s always the temptation to give in for once and pay the price for a shelter, food, and money, but I have yet to give in.
A car slows beside me, gliding along the road and smoothly matching my pace. I peek at it from the corner of my eye, not wanting to show any interest. It’s a well-kept, black truck. The tinted window on the passenger side rolls down and a crackly male voice says, “I ain’t seen no girl like you before on these here streets.” I try not to flinch at the sound music floating out of the window and into my ears. I’ve not heard any music in a long time.
“You look like an ice berg out there. Why don’t you let me help you out.” I ignore his demanding voice and instead listen to the music. It’s rap. I like rap. But only the kind that has a true-to-life meaning. That’s not the kind he’s listening to, though. I catch some pretty vulgar words.
I continue to walk, blocking out the man’s voice while he tells me the deal he and I can make. I take a look at the man and flip him my favorite finger. The man lets out a string of disturbing exploits and speeds off, driving over a big puddle of water that soaks my clothes. I hear the man’s laughter as his car disappears down the road.
I drop my shoulders and bite my bottom lip, refusing to let any tears slip down my cheeks. The water seeps onto my skin, paralyzing my bones for a long moment. I have to move on, I tell myself, these streets are dangerous.
My feet and legs find a way to keep moving and I, determined to keep on going, struggle to ignore the cold.
This is the best I could find: an abandoned house with five others. There’re two boys and two girls – all a bit younger than I. The fifth is about my age – a boy they all call Notes. I was walking down an alley when I bumped into him. He had two soft looking blankets bundled up beneath his jacket. Before he continued on his way, he looked me up and down, studying my drenched clothes and my helpless expression. He offered me a nice place and at first I was suspicious. But, then, I guess I had nothing to lose. He seemed too kind to want anything in return but looks can be deceiving, I know.
But I followed anyway, dragging myself along beside him, both of us silent for a long time. We stopped at a large apartment building that looked old and impervious – as far as I could tell.
“Come inside,” he said to me softly. I stepped in behind him, close behind his heels for fear of danger. Funny how this random stranger I knew nothing about felt like my only protection in that one moment. It was so silent, I thought we were alone. But soon, I saw a pair of big blue eyes looking up at me. They belonged to a blond girl – Kitty, they call her. She ducked her head when she saw me, looked down at her dirty jeans and t-shirt, and blushed.
I was immediately stunned, because for the first time in a long time, I saw a little piece of innocence in the eyes of someone who is so young and so vulnerable to the destruction of life on the streets.
Another child came in, older than Kitty. His name was Words. He didn’t speak, though. Not a single sound came out of him and for a long time, I had a hard time believing he was even breathing. Apparently, he went mute just recently after surviving a house fire and running away.
The other two kids – Kiwi and Calc – appeared soon behind Words. Kiwi got her name because she likes the fruit so much. She told me that Notes always bought them for her. Calc got his short for Calculator. It was a racist joke made by some thugs he stayed with before since he’s Korean. He didn’t seem to mind, though. I think he liked the name because it made him feel smart – something not a lot of us street kids feel like.
After a long moment of silence, Notes chuckles and rubs the back of his neck. “So, you are?” He finally asks me. The others stare at me intently.
“Cat,” I say, keeping my voice from cracking.
“How come?” Kitty asks, sincerely curious. Her lips spread into a wide grin, noticing that her name is practically mine. Suddenly I feel closeness to her like she’s my baby sister, or my niece, or even daughter. I hold in the urge to hug her tight.
“At first it was because I didn’t speak to anyone,” I say. When none of them seem to understand I continue. “You know that phrase, ‘cat got your tongue’?”
All of them nod.
“Well, I was always quiet and when I was interrogated or whatever, people would ask that. And then I earned it completely for how sneaky I can be,” I wink at Kitty. She giggles.
“Then why not be named Ninja or something awesome like that?” Asks Calc. Kitty guffaws at him.
“I love her name!” She states, pounding her fists on her hips.
“He didn’t mean to offend you, Kitty,” Notes says softly. His voice is deep and calming. I think my heart almost melts and some inner warmth disguises the chills running down my arms and spines. Almost.
Notes notices when I shiver and he tells the others to head upstairs to get the candles. He advises me to head up along with them while he handles things downstairs but when I offer to stay with him, he doesn’t argue.
Together, we push a couch in front of the door so no one can just barge in and Notes runs his fingers along the black paint covering the windows.
“I painted them black from the inside so no one can see us when we light the candles,” he tells me.
“Candles?” How do they afford candles? I once walked into a Yankees store but I couldn’t anything. I only get money if I look really well on the streets or if a kind person gives me some. One woman gave me a twenty and wished me the best of luck. She was the nicest person I’ve met.
I’ve tried getting a job but no one trusts a street kid. Some really bad thugs and drug addicts in the city give us street kids a bad name. We aren’t all that bad.
I swear I’ve never touched a cigarette in my life. I’ve never stolen anything – unless you count taking money on the ground – and I’ve never wasted time on drugs. I prefer knowing exactly what’s going on in my life. I’m not going to let cold temperatures and little clothing change that.
“Yeah, I sell stuff,” Notes tells me.
‘Stuff,’ as in: drugs like All Star, and Black Sunshine. ‘Stuff,’ means One Way, Raspberry, and Rock Star.
He’s a drug dealer.
“Oh,” I say. I’ve talked to drug dealers. Some are open with what they do. They tell everyone on the block to get more business. Those are the really stupid ones that always get caught. They also sell the drugs that are too risky. Either they don’t have enough or they overdose. You have an untellable probability of either living, ending up in a drug comma, or dying. But those drugs are cheap and easy to buy.
Then there are the quiet ones. These are harder to find. I like to call them Shadows. They seem pretty normal but they have a sneaky side. I think Notes is a Shadow. He’s not really elaborating on anything and he’s careful and quiet. He has a confidence to him that no normal street kid has.
The only Shadow I’ve ever met was a tall teenager named Hush. He was really kind to the younger street kids. I knew him six months ago when I hit my one year anniversary of living on the streets – a record for any human being.
Hush wasn’t shady. In fact, he was a pretty open person. You’d think he was just a normal teenager walking along in a city. He always traveled with one boy, Grime. Grime was funny and handsome for someone on the streets. He told me his story once, when I’d spent a day with the two of them. They told me stories, took me out to eat ice cream, and bought me a new shirt and a pair of converse from a store that had gone bankrupt. It was the most fun I’d ever had.
Hush told me to stay back with Grime at one point. He left for a long time while Grime told me about drugs. He said that they are never good – no matter what anyone ever told me. He told me enough to keep me away from drugs forever. And then he told me that Hush was dealing.
When Hush returned to us, he smiled kindly at me and nodded at Grime. The two of them finally took me to a park where they bought a balloon from one of those carts that I never really see anymore and a ball for the heck of it. They gave me the balloon and tied it to my wrist while Grime warned me not to float away. He looked into my eyes and patted my head. There was a secret meaning in it, I know. He didn’t want me to lose myself in the streets. Lose my innocence. He wanted me to stay as young as possible.
The three of us played catch for a long time until the sun started coming down. When I saw the round moon, Grime and Hush took me to one of their hide outs. It’s this big tree house that was abandoned a while back. They told me to stay as long as I wanted or come back whenever I needed a place to sleep. And then they left me with it – a nice looking tree house with a blanket, a pillow, and some food jars.
Notes and I head upstairs after he finishes checking all of the painted windows. He tells me about his plan to get wood and nails to put over them so no one decides to break in in the middle of the night.
Upstairs is a lot smaller than I’d expected. There are two rooms. One is a cramped little bathroom with five packages of toilet paper and napkins, a pile of folded towels, and bottles of soap and hand sanitizer. Beside all of this is a cabinet. I wonder if Notes buys medicine for the kids.
In the bigger room, there are five cots – each with a blanket and pillow on top. Kiwi, Calc, Words, and Kitty are all sitting ‘Indian style’ around a couple of lit candles. The mixed sent somehow sooths my nose and I wonder if it has something to do with the rough, disgusting smell of alcohol, smoke, and dead bodies you can smell in all the wrong places on the streets.
“Are you spending the night, Cat?” Kitty asks, looking hopeful. Her big blue eyes smile at me. I nod and walk over to their little circle. The four of them make room for me and Notes and we all huddle together. It’s not exactly cold in this room but it isn’t warm either. Of course, anything’s better than staying outside.
“We can tell funny stories, scary stories, friendship stories, and fairy tales.” Kitty rambles on and on with a big grin. Calc rolls his eyes and Kiwi says, “Kitty you hate scary stories.”
This little remark makes Kitty blush. Notes leans close so his lips almost touch my ear. “She’s trying to impress you,” he says softly.
So this was there little unrelated family of five. I wonder… Will they let a sixth member?