"I'll be stopping for breakfast soon." It's the first time Bob's addressed them since they set off almost two hours earlier, when they drove away in the silvery-light of pre-dawn. Since then he's mostly driven in silence, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel in time to songs on the radio and occasionally talking on the CB, short conversations with people with handles like Zombie and BMonkey, not that Ryan understands any of what they say.
"Okay," Spencer says. He's lying down and reading one of Bob's books, his foot propped on a pile of pillows. He looks better now, less strain apparent around his mouth. Seeing that helps Ryan relax, too, helps him believe that maybe this will turn out okay.
"I'll wash our clothes while we're there, there has to be a sink." Ryan looks down at his t-shirt, grimacing at how stained it is. All their clothes are.
"Good idea," Spencer says. "I'll help." He pats the space next to him then, urging Ryan to come closer. "Come lie next to me until we get there."
With a look at Bob, Ryan does so, stretching out as best he can. While he still doesn't trust Bob completely, the man hasn't done anything that could be taken the wrong way, and Ryan's content to lie close to Spencer, listening to the swish of the road.
"I was thinking. We should get a place with a tub and a shower." Spencer puts down the book and props himself up on one elbow, looking down at Ryan. "Maybe our own towels. You can have blue and I'll have green."
"You've got issues about sharing?"
"Not really." Spencer shrugs. "It's just, I shared for so long at the home it would be nice to have something totally mine. But I don't mind sharing, not with you."
"We'll get separate towels," Ryan says. "I'll stitch our names on the corners, like rich people do."
"You can stitch?" Spencer smiles, and rests his hand on Ryan's side. "When did you learn that?"
"I'm a man of mystery." Ryan tries for mysterious, but suspects all he looks is constipated when Spencer bursts out laughing.
"Okay mystery man, you can stitch our towels."
Ryan holds up his hand for a high five. "It's a deal." They slap hands and it's then that Ryan remembers that Bob can easily overhear, and that some things he doesn't need to know. Inclining his head, he says, "Shush."
"Shushing," Spencer says, and while he's not smiling anymore, it's easy to see that he's amused.
Bob parks almost twenty minutes later. Ryan's expecting a truck stop, but they've pulled up at the side of the road, where a large silver van is set on the grass. There's a sign on the side, Marge's Eats, a long hatch in the side, and Bob turns around, his arm over the back of his seat.
"It's take out only, so what do you guys want? I can recommend the egg sandwiches."
"We don't have any money," Spencer says, and he pushes himself up so he can see Bob better.
"I know." Bob keeps looking at them. "Well?"
Spencer looks unsure, and exchanges a glance with Ryan before saying. "I'll have the egg sandwich. Bacon, too, if they have it."
"Good choice, Ryan?"
"I'll have the same."
"Right," Bob says, and doesn't move, just sits still as if he's thinking of something. Wondering if he expects them to get out, Ryan's about to stand up when Bob suddenly shuffles along to the passenger seat, and then steps into the sleeping area.
"Don't freak out, I'm just getting something," Bob says, looking down at Ryan before he starts rummaging on a high shelf that's set above the bed. Eventually, after he's searched through piles of something, Bob pulls out two sweatshirts and drops them on the bed. "I don't need these, you should wear them. It's cold out."
He leaves then, jumping down to the ground.
"We don't need his cast offs." Ryan pushes aside the clothes and starts to get up, but remains on his knees when he sees Spencer reach for one of the sweatshirts, shaking it out so he can take a look. "You're not wearing that are you? We don't want to be in his debt."
"I think it's too late for that, and he's right, it'll be cold out there." Spencer opens the second sweatshirt and lays it out next to the first, then looks at Ryan. "Before, I made a vow, that one day I'd never wear anything second hand again. I'd pick my own clothes, stuff I like and that fits, no more growing into things or making do. But that's something for the future, right now we need to take what we can get."
Which is something Ryan can understand, but he just wishes the sweatshirts weren't so plain. Both of them are black, with a front pocket and a hood. Still, it could be worse -- they could be plaid. Ryan takes one of the sweatshirts and carefully eases it over his head. Of course it's too big, the sleeves falling over his hands and the hem reaching to mid thigh. Still, it is warm and smells slightly of what Ryan's coming to think of as Bob, coffee and cigarettes and somehow, dog.
"Now we're dressed, can we go eat?"
Busy rolling up his sleeves, Spencer says, "Go ahead."
After lying still for so long, walking isn't pleasant. Ryan has to hold onto the back of the passenger seat with one hand and getting to the ground is an exercise in patience, careful footing and many curse words as he eases himself down. When he does he sees that Bob is standing at the counter of the van, talking to the woman inside. She's busy frying eggs on a griddle and laughing at something Bob is saying. Which is surprising, because Ryan wouldn't have pegged Bob as a funny guy, yet there he is, making the woman laugh as she gathers bread and splashes oil over the eggs.
"You know, if you stopped spying I could get down."
Ryan looks up at Spencer who's sitting on the passenger seat, waiting to get down. He's got his bandaged foot raised off the ground and Ryan can't resist tickling over his exposed toes.
"Bastard," Spencer says, pulling back his foot.
Unrepentant, Ryan steps to one side, ready to help Spencer down when Bob turns to look their way. "Wait there, Spencer. I'll get you a chair."
Disappearing around the back of the trailer, Bob comes back carrying three plastic chairs which he brings over to the truck. Setting them down, he moves next to Ryan, watching as Spencer climbs down, then hops to one of the chairs.
"Put your foot on here," Bob says, and moves one of the other chairs so it's in front of Spencer.
"Thank you." Obediently, Spencer rests his foot on the chair, and settles back, eyes half closed as he tips his head back, enjoying the early morning sun.
"Ryan, get over here."
Ryan frowns in Bob's direction, because Ryan's not some dog who can be ordered around, but Bob isn't even looking, has turned back to the woman who's spooning sugar into mugs. With ill-grace, Ryan walks over, kicking at the ground so that the dust swirls around his feet.
The first thing he notices is there's a whole small kitchen inside the van, a fridge and stove and a counter with a coffee machine and an urn for hot water. There are miss-matched mugs stacked along one wall, plates in haphazard piles and trays of sandwiches and chocolate bars covered with plastic domes.
"This is Ada, she makes the best tea in the area."
"Oh hush." Ada smiles and pours water into the mugs, stirring them so the string from the tea bag swirls in circles. "Here you go, sweetie, three teas with extra sugar."
She pushes the mugs close, and Ryan doesn't mention he's not keen on tea. He takes two of the mugs, the one with the yellow duck and the one with multi-coloured spots. Eyeing the third, he's wondering if he can manage two in one hand when Bob picks up the mug and takes a sip.
"Go take those back to Spencer, I'll bring the rest."
Ryan goes. Sitting in the spare chair, he hands a mug to Spencer, and then takes a sip of his own tea. It's sickly sweet and strong, but Ryan keeps drinking, enjoying the heat and the way the mug is warm and solid in his hands.
"What do you think?" Somehow Bob's managed to carry his mug of tea as well as three plates, all stacked on top of one another, a sandwich on each one. When Ryan starts to stand, offering the chair, Bob shakes his head no and sits on the ground, resting against the tire of his truck.
"So, the tea. It's enough to put hairs on your chest, yeah?"
"It's different." Spencer's looking down into his mug, as if there's something fascinating contained in the almost black liquid. "I'd rather have a hot chocolate, though."
"Coffee’s my drug of choice." Bob hands over plates and sets his own in his lap, picks up his sandwich and takes a bite.
"So why stop here?" Spencer's pulling back the top layer of his bread, looking at what's inside. Picking up a slice of crispy bacon, he puts it in his mouth and starts to chew. He swallows. ""There has to be other places to stop."
"There are," Bob says. "But Ada runs this place herself and she needs the trade. It was her mom's van and she took it over."
"Marge, right?" Spencer says.
Bob grins around a mouthful of sandwich, swallows and says, "She was called Fiona, no one's really sure who Marge was."
Spencer looks over at the van, and then at Bob. "Whatever, she makes good sandwiches."
"She does," Ryan agrees, and to prove just how good they are, he sets to eating his in record time.
Traveling with Bob is easy. He buys them food without comment and is content to drive as Ryan and Spencer stretch out in his bed, napping and reading his books and magazines. Late in the afternoon Spencer climbs in front, foot up on the dashboard, resting it on one of Bob's hoodies as they become involved in a spirited discussion of music, discovering a mutual love of drumming. It seems Bob plays in his spare time and Spencer used to play to play, and they debate bands as Ryan sits in back and pretends he's not feeling left out. He could get up front and join in, he knows lots about music and has an opinion about it all. It's just, he doesn't want to. Bob hasn't asked for payback yet, but he still could and Ryan needs to be ready, and he won't be if he starts to see Bob as safe. He's not; no one is.
"We'll be arriving in Chicago soon." Bob reaches out and turns down the radio slightly, drumming his fingers against the steering wheel as he keeps looking forward. "Where does your uncle live? I need to deliver this cargo but I'll drop you off as close as I can."
Ryan tries to think of a place to say, but his mind is blank and he knows the silence is stretching too long. "You can drop us off near the bus station, we'll find our way."
"Right." Bob keeps looking forward, then seems to makes some kind of decision as he takes a deep breath and glances at Spencer, who looks wary, his back against the door and turned slightly to the side so he can look easily between Bob and Ryan. "Look, if you've nowhere to go, I can tell you some places, safe places. Or take you somewhere else."
"We've got somewhere to go," Ryan says, and he pulls Spencer's bag close, sets it on his guitar. "Just let us out near the station, we'll find our way, we don't need your help."
"Fair enough." Bob doesn't seem convinced, but he says nothing more.
They finally pull up on a wet Wednesday evening, when the sidewalks glisten grey and the clouds seem to press down from the sky. Bob doesn't get out of the cab, just watches as Spencer and Ryan climb outside.
"Wait. Take this," Bob says suddenly, sliding across the seats and holding out a business card that Spencer reaches up and takes. He holds it up, showing Ryan what it says -- Clan House, with a phone number and, ask for Mikey or Pete scrawled on the back. Spencer tucks it in his pocket as they stand side by side on the sidewalk, watching Bob drive away.
Brendon spends his fifteen dollars on a cup of hot chocolate – he adds an extra sugar, just like his mom used to do, and when the man behind the counter isn’t looking, shoves a handful of packets into his pocket – a bag of gummy worms, two apples and a muffin. Change in his pocket, he takes the bag with the food and holds his cocoa as he steps outside of the store.
It’s late, almost midnight, and the simple fact is, Brendon’s scared. He’s got nowhere to go, only a few dollars to his name and is faced with yet another night alone. Brendon hates that, being alone has always felt wrong, he needs contact, hugs and touching and before, when he was always surrounded by family he got that, until suddenly, he didn't at all. Taking a sip of cocoa, he swills the liquid around his mouth, hoping the sweetness will mask the lingering taste of the man’s cock and come. It doesn’t, no matter how many packets of sugar Brendon rips open and pours in his mouth.
Dropping the open packets into the trash, Brendon begins to walk, looking around for a place to spend the night. He passes alleys and benches. He hunches in on himself when he has to walk past an all night café where a group of people stand in the parking lot, laughing. Brendon reminds himself it’s not at him, they don’t even see him. It doesn’t stop him almost running past, head down and eyes toward the ground.
The plastic bag bumps against Brendon’s thigh as he walks and his cocoa is cold when he finally finishes drinking, making it last with small sips. Throwing the cup in the trash, Brendon sees a bench nearby, one at the side of the road, close to a bus stop. He sits down, placing the bag next to him.
If anyone asks, he’ll say that he’s waiting for a bus. He looks at the sign and imagines that he’s off to visit his sister, that he’s missed the last bus and when he gets there in the morning she’ll be waiting, wrapped in a robe, her hair a mess as she yawns and shakes her head before pulling him in for a hug. She’ll steer him to the kitchen for orange juice and bagels. No, not bagels. Brendon opens the bag, tears at the plastic wrapping of the muffin and pulls off a piece, putting it in his mouth. She’ll have made pancakes, with syrup and blueberries, and they’ll listen to the radio as he tells her how he missed the last bus, and she’ll tsk and laugh before sliding a pancake onto his plate. Yeah, that’s exactly what would happen.
Brendon eats more of the muffin, chewing slowly, back straight, feet on the floor as he waits for morning to come.
When the sun begins to rise, Brendon stands. He’s exhausted and he shivers as he shoves the gummy worms in his back pocket, drops the bag, apple cores and muffin wrapper into the trash.
Already a few people are walking past, stride determined, bundled up in coats and scarves, ear buds pushed in their ears. Brendon smiles at each one and tries to pretend he’s not cold that he’s okay, he’s fine, but that’s hard when his hands are shaking, no matter how hard he wills them to stop. Crossing his arms, he jams his hands under his armpits and keeps looking for a shop, somewhere he can get a warm drink, because that’s what he needs. A drink and some of his candy and his hands will stop shaking and he won’t feel so clammy and sick. Brendon’s sure of that.
It’s why he spends the last of his money on another hot chocolate, hissing when he takes his drink from the machine and spills some onto his hand. Blowing on the sore spot, Brendon sets down the cup and adds extra sugar and then tries to put on the plastic lid, but it must be defective somehow, because no matter how hard he tries, it doesn’t seem to fit.
Eventually, when Brendon’s tried multiple times, he leaves it loose and sets the cup on the counter, the lid hanging off one side.
“That’s three dollars, please,” the assistant says, and she leans forward and deftly fits the lid onto the cup. “There you go.”
“Thank you.” Brendon smiles and looks at the coins in his hand. He picks out three dollars, hands them over and takes his hot chocolate.
Both hands wrapped around the cup, Brendon reluctantly goes back outside, where it’s still cold despite the rising sun. Knowing the only thing he can do is to keep moving, he begins to walk.
“So, what am I supposed to do, chair dance?”
Ryan flexes his fingers and then goes back to tuning his guitar, pointedly ignoring Spencer, who’s on an ornate metal bench, knee bent and sitting slightly sideways so that his bad foot is off the ground.
“Because I know we said you’d busk, but I thought I’d be doing something, too, not just sitting here.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” Ryan says, and he looks up at Spencer. “Not right now.”
“Great, so that’s what you think, I’m useless.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Pushing his hair out of his eyes, Ryan tries to find the right words, but it’s hard, because Spencer’s supposed to understand what Ryan means, even when he’s not saying things right.
The problem is, they’re both cold and tired after spending the night in the bus station, Ryan sitting propped up against Spencer, sharing the last of the sandwiches and the sodas and chocolate Bob had somehow shoved into their bag. At one point Ryan had seen Spencer look at the card Bob had given him, but then he’d put it safely back in the bag, and neither have mentioned it. Even at four am when it began to rain and they had to shelter in a shop doorway, curled up tight and pressed in as far as they could physically go.
Now they’re damp and irritable and Spencer doesn’t understand that the most important thing he can do is be here, at Ryan’s side. Picking up his guitar, Ryan winces at the pull in his chest as he puts the strap over his shoulder, and then stands. “You’re not useless, I need you here.”
“Why?” Spencer asks.
“You need to keep an eye on any money, and clap when I finish singing, even if no one else does, and if anyone boos you have to glare.”
Spencer smiles, slightly, but still, it’s there. “What, so I’m your official number one fan?”
“Basically,” Ryan says, hiding his own smile. He brushes his fingers over the strings then, looking around at the people hurrying past. “What happens if they hate me or no one gives me any money?”
“Then you’d have to take off your shirt, that's worked before.” Spencer reaches out, covering Ryan’s hand with his own. “They’ll love you, and if they don’t I’ll scowl at them until they do.”
“You’re good at scowling.”
“I know,” Spencer says. “So go on, make us some money.”
It’s not that simple, of course. Ryan’s so nervous that it takes a while before he can even start to sing, and when he does, his voice is croaky, rough with disuse and the careful breaths he has to take due to his healing ribs. The few people who do look his way walk straight past, some laughing and shaking their heads, and Spencer’s arms are crossed as he glares at each one, before clapping enthusiastically after each song.
Ryan keeps playing. The Beatles, some Backstreet, and eventually he feels more confident, singing louder, especially when the first person stops, throwing in a coin when he gets to the end of I Want It That Way.
It’s when he’s singing Blur’s Song Two, Spencer joining in with the woo hoos, that Ryan sees the man. He’s sitting on the bench next to Spencer’s, hat pulled down almost to his glasses, coat buttoned to his chin and wearing fingerless gloves as he texts furiously. There’s a giant Starbucks cup next to him, steam escaping from the hole in the top and he’s got his legs crossed, one foot tapping in the air to the beat of the song. When Ryan stops singing, he looks up, seemingly waiting, and despite the fact he doesn’t smile or his expression change really at all, he seems approving as Ryan begins to sing Don’t Look Back in Anger.
When Ryan’s half way through the song, the man stops texting and shoves his phone into his pocket, and Ryan’s expecting him to go. He doesn’t, instead he sits and keeps listening, only standing when Ryan gets to the end of the song. Pulling out his wallet, the man takes out a ten and hands it over to Ryan. “Great songs, it makes a change from the crap you hear every day.”
“Thank you,” Ryan says, and tucks the money into the pocket of his hoodie.
“You’re welcome.” Holding up the coffee cup in some kind of salute, the man walks away, and Ryan turns to Spencer.
“He gave me a ten.”
“I know. I saw. He liked your singing.”
“How can you tell?” Ryan takes the money out of his pocket and hands it to Spencer. “It’s not like he was smiling or anything.”
“I know,” Spencer says. “He still enjoyed it, I could tell.”
Which is enough for Ryan, and he nods before he begins to sing Dancing Queen, Spencer laughing and tapping out the beat on the arm of the bench.
By the time Ryan stops singing, they’ve made almost forty dollars. The money is safely in the bag, mostly coins with a small amount of dollars, all carefully bundled in one of Spencer’s socks.
It’s been a long day, and Ryan stumbles slightly as he stands, needing food and rest, but they still need to find somewhere to spend the night. Preferably somewhere that’s not this bench, because Ryan’s aching and cold and the thought of another night spent sleeping sitting up isn’t appealing at all.
“I think we should book a cheap hotel room for tonight,” Ryan says, half expecting Spencer to disagree. He doesn’t, just pushes himself to his feet with a harsh intake of air when he puts his foot on the ground and stands.
“I’ll go ask in the shop, they should know the cheap hotels.”
About to say he’ll go, Ryan stops himself when he sees the determination in Spencer’s face, the way he hop-walks toward the small newsagents where Ryan bought bottles of water earlier that day, as if he’s trying to prove he can do something. Which Ryan can understand, and despite his urge to make Spencer sit down he waits on the bench, hands shoved into his hoodie pocket.
“There’s a cheap hotel on the other side of the park. She didn’t seem keen on giving directions, saying bad kinds go there, but I told her we didn’t have much money, so.” Spencer shrugs, and then holds up a candy bar. “She gave me this, too.”
“You’re a charmer, Spencer.” Ryan picks up his guitar and stands, taking the half of candy bar that Spencer hands over. “Did she tell you where the park is?”
“Two blocks in that direction,” Spencer says, pointing. “She said to keep out of the north end, though.”
“More bad kinds?”
With Spencer limping badly it takes a while to get to the park, never mind the hotel. When they reach the gates the sun has already set, and only a few late joggers are running along the wide well-lit paths. None slow as they pass, and Ryan keeps to the very edge of the path, his feet brushing against the flowers that grow along the side.
“After we get a room we should go get something to eat.”
Ryan slows, matching his pace to Spencer’s. “Or you could stay in and I’ll get us something.”
“I’ve done nothing all day,” Spencer protests. “And it’s not like you’re not hurt, too.”
“I can walk at least.”
“So can I.” Spencer stops walking completely and turns so he can see Ryan. “I can look after myself; I don’t need anyone else to do it.”
“I know you can, but you need to rest your foot. You can’t do that running around for food.”
For a long time, Spencer doesn’t reply, but then he says. “I guess I could stay in, for tonight anyway.”
“Good, you can warm the bed.”
“Now I see your plan, get me lying in bed, warming the sheets for you.”
“You know it,” Ryan says. “Come on, we’ll have no bed at all if we don’t get moving.” It’s a valid concern, it’s fully dark now and most people have gone home to their warm houses, comfortable beds and hot food. The only person in sight is a girl who’s hurrying along the path behind them, her heels clicking against the ground. When she gets close she slows a little, and Ryan sees that her legs are bare, white and goose-bumped under her short-skirt and she’s got her arms crossed over her chest.
“You’ll have to hurry if you want the good stuff; they always run out of the soft rolls after the first ten minutes.”
“Rolls?” Ryan says, and looks at Spencer, suspecting some kind of drug terminology he doesn’t know, some reference to a deal that’s going down at the north end of the park.
The girl rolls her eyes. “Like, bread. From the soup kitchen.” She purses her lips then, taps a red-nailed finger against her mouth. “Though it’s Thursday, they have better stuff on a Thursday. I think it must be delivery day.”
“You’re saying there’s a soup kitchen in the park, where we can get food for free?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” She rolls her eyes.
“No, what you said was the soft rolls would run out,” Spencer replies.
“Whatever.” The girls shrugs and hurries off. “Come eat, don’t. I don’t care.”
She heads toward the far end of the park, and Ryan looks at Spencer. “Well?”
“I think we should go. We don’t know how much a room will cost; we mightn’t have anything left for food.”
“Yeah,” Ryan says. “So we go see the bad kinds.”
“We do.” Within a short walk they start to smell the scent of bread, around a corner and they see clouds of steam rising into the air, hear people chatting and the faint sound of music. Around another corner, past a white-painted bandstand and they see the soup kitchen.
It’s arranged close to a black van that’s parked on an expanse of concrete next to the entrance to the park, a long row of trestle tables set in front. Three of the tables hold large silver vats and the last holds a big basket of rolls and piles of large plastic cups.
Two men stand behind the tables, both chatting as they serve soup and hand out rolls to the long line of people who pick up a cup, take a roll from the man with the tattoos on his hands and then walk in a line until their bowl is filled by the second man, the one with the wide smile and hoodie hood pulled up over his head.
“Hey, come over here.”
Ryan looks around, and sees the girl beckoning them from the end of the line. She’s stepping from foot to foot and rubbing at her arms when they come close. “If you stand staring like that they’ll know you’re fresh off the bus.”
“Truck,” Spencer says. “We got off a truck, and it was yesterday.”
“Bus, truck. Doesn’t matter. They’ll still be on you.”
Spencer straightens his shoulders and brings himself up to his full height. “We can look after ourselves.”
“Sure you can, limpy. You and stick boy, here.”
“You’re funny,” Spencer says. “What do you do for your day job, comedian?”
“Hooker, actually.” She looks between them both when neither Spencer nor Ryan reply. “See, this is what I mean. Fresh meat.”
“Well, what did you expect us to say? That’s nice.”
“Better than gaping at me.” The girl pokes a finger at Spencer’s chest. “You won’t meet many office workers around here, princess.”
“Don’t call me princess, and we’re not staying around here, we’re getting an apartment together.”
“Sure you are, princess.” She smiles then, the heavy shadow around her eyes creasing into dark lines. “I’m Lisa, and you are?”
“Spencer, and that’s Ryan.”
“So, Princess and Ryan, nice to meet you.” Stepping out of the line, Lisa looks toward the tables, then steps back. “I think we might get lucky and get a soft roll. That is if Frankie doesn’t start giving out two to the hard luck cases.”
“Frankie?” Ryan says, stretching up so he can look toward the man giving out rolls.
“Small, tattooed, handing out rolls. That’s Frank. He helps out sometimes, when Pete or Mikey isn’t here.”
“You do realise we don’t know anyone you’re talking about,” Spencer says.
“That’s because you’re fresh meat, Princess.” Lisa bumps Spencer with her elbow, and then holds up her hand, three fingers extended. “One, Frankie. Small, tattooed, rolls. We’ve gone over this, keep up. Pete: also small, also tattooed, giving out soup in that ugly hoodie. This is his gig, well his and Mikey’s but he’s not here, so.”
“Wait,” Ryan says. “Mikey and Pete, do they run something called Clan House?”
Lisa narrows her eyes and looks at Ryan. “Not so new after all. They do, but you won’t get in. They never kick anyone out; just let them stay until they get set up with homes and jobs. It’s a sweet place, but the turnover is low.”
“Turnover of what?”
“Really, Princess, keep up. Clan House is a shelter, for people like us, homeless with nowhere to go.”
“Like you maybe, we’re getting a home. Ryan’s going to busk and save money for our own place.”
Expecting some sarcastic comment, Ryan’s surprised when Lisa just shrugs one bony shoulder. “I hope you do.”
She says nothing else, and they stand in silence, shuffling forward until finally they’re at the first table. Taking a cup, Lisa grins when she’s in front of Frank. “Hey gorgeous, got something soft for me?”
“Hey kid, you’re lucky, there’s a few of the soft ones left.” He takes a roll out of the basket and hands it over with a wink. “How you doing?”
“Not bad, you know how it is; you do what you have to.” Lisa smiles, but Ryan sees how tightly she’s holding onto the roll and the way she licks her bottom lip, a flash of tongue as she glances at the vats of soup.
“It’s vegetable today, I made it myself.”
“Yeah, right. From a packet maybe.” Lisa starts to step along the line, then stops, looking back. “Watch these two, they’re new. Ryan and Princess.”
“Ryan and Princess, so which is which?” Frank looks at them both, keeps smiling despite the way Ryan is staring at him without a word, shocked into silence after finding himself in a crowd of people and faced with someone so obviously alive, his energy an almost tangible thing.
“That’s Ryan, I’m Spencer.” Spencer picks up a cup and hands it to Ryan, then takes one for himself.
“Nice to meet you,” Frank says, and he puts down a roll and holds out his hand across the table. Ryan looks at his hand, at the letters across his knuckles, the ends of other tattoos that snake from under the cuffs of his sweatshirt. Frank wraps his hand around Spencer’s and shakes, and does the same to Ryan, even when Ryan lets his hand hang limp.
“You’re looking a little beaten up; you know there’s free clinics if you need them.”
“No,” Ryan says immediately, not ready to face yet more new people. Frank doesn’t seem to mind the brusque reply, just holds up his hands before picking up two rolls, handing them over to Ryan and Spencer.
“No worries, but if you change your mind, just ask.”
They move on then, holding out their cups to Pete, who fills each one to almost overflowing while grinning at them both. “Hey, you’re new, right? Welcome.”
“Thanks,” Spencer says. He’s holding his cup tightly, keeping it level so none spills and Ryan does the same, his roll held securely in his mouth as he carries his soup and guitar.
The immediate area is full of people sitting on the benches and on the ground, some talking in small groups, most on their own as they quickly inhale their food before melting off into the night. None of them look homeless, not like Ryan expected, anyway. He sees a woman pulling a shopping cart full of junk, a man with matted hair and two odd shoes, but most look like ordinary people bundled in their layers of clothes. That is, until Ryan looks closer, when he sees sharp cheekbones and ragged nails, outfits that don't fit and are far from clean. Mostly though, it's their expressions, as if the world has turned against them somehow. Ryan knows that expression; he's seen it often in Spencer's eyes.
Needing distraction, he looks around and sees that Lisa’s found a place on a low wall, her cup balanced on her lap as she soaks pieces of her roll and stuffs them in her mouth.
Swallowing, she looks up and indicates the wall next to her. “Come pull up some wall.”
They do, Ryan sitting next to Lisa and the wall is slightly damp, mossy in parts and the back of Ryan's thighs press against the blunt edge as he dips the roll in the soup, watching the bread become soaked through and turn orange. Before Ryan’s halfway through his cup Lisa’s is empty, and she drags her finger over the plastic, getting the last drops. Watching her, Spencer holds out his cup. “Here.”
“Princess, you can’t be giving away food, not if you want to survive.” But Ryan can see how much Lisa wants the soup, and Spencer doesn't pull back his hand.
“I’m full, I don’t need any more."
It sounds like the truth, and obviously Lisa thinks so too as she grabs the cup from Spencer, looking at him over the rim as she tips it to her mouth. When she finishes drinking, there's a red lip-print on the rim of the cup and a piece of carrot stuck to the corner of her mouth.
"You've got...." Spencer points at his own lip and Lisa sticks out her tongue, using it to pull the piece of carrot into her mouth. "Thanks, Princess."
"Spencer," Spencer corrects, and he looks at Ryan, asking if he's finished through a series of eyebrow lifts and quirks of his mouth that Ryan answers with a slight nod. "Well, I'd say it's been good, but I'd be lying."
"Whatever," Lisa says, and she slides to the ground, her heels hitting the concrete with a click. She starts to walk away then, takes one step, two, three, then stops and turns. "Look, normally I wouldn't, but you've been decent to me. Where are you planning on sleeping tonight?"
Ryan glances at Spencer and shrugs, the slightest movement of his shoulders. "We're heading for a hotel, the one on the other side of the park."
"The Weston? You really don't want to be there. They eat fresh meat like you for breakfast. Save your money, I'll show you a place."
"Why?" Spencer asks.
Lisa begins to walk, doesn't look back and says. "Call it my good deed for the day."
"Well?" Spencer asks, his voice low.
"I think we should go with her. We'll save money and I doubt she'll jump us for our stuff."
Ryan stands, picking up his guitar and waits for Spencer to get down and steady himself before they follow. Taking a short detour to throw away the cups, they soon catch up, and Ryan knows Lisa's deliberately going slowly, especially when she looks at him when they get close.
"Second lesson: I could be after your stuff. How do you know I don't have an accomplice waiting to jump you?"
"Do you?" Spencer asks, suspiciously.
"It’s not like I’d tell you if I did, but no. I live alone, work alone, well, mostly."
"So why help us now?"
"Don't get me wrong, this is no student-mentor thing, I'm gonna show you a safe place to stay and then I'm outta here."
"That's fine by me," Spencer says, almost bristling as he moves so that he's walking closer to Ryan.
"Simmer down, Princess. I'm making no moves on what's yours."
"Good." They walk in silence a while, Spencer eyeing Lisa, as if he's weighing up the truth of her words, then visually relaxes and takes a half step to the side, deciding she can be trusted for now. "So, this place, where is it?"
Lisa looks at Spencer and while she's not smiling, she's not looking away either. "Two blocks over. It's an office block marked for demolition, kinda scuzzy, but at least it's dry -- and free."
It sounds good to Ryan -- after spending time sleeping in the open, anywhere with a roof sounds good. Still, when he first sees where they're going, he begins to change his mind. While the office block is still standing, all the windows have been smashed and the main door is hanging loose, the wood splintered around the lock. When they squeeze inside it's light next to the windows, broken glass glinting in the moonlight, but further in it's dark, and all Ryan can see are looming shadows. Feeling uneasy, he moves so he's close to Spencer, enough that their hands are brushing together.
They keep going, picking their way through piles of trash, and Ryan wants to put his hand over his nose and mouth, because the smell is terrible. Unwashed bodies and mold underlain with something sweet, like somewhere there's something rotting, and Ryan can't help thinking of brittle bones and liquefying flesh.
When they're close to the back of the building, close to a staircase where the treads are broken, most lying on the floor in a dirt-covered pile, Lisa stops and toes at a mattress on the floor. Springs are sticking through the fabric at one end and even in the dim light Ryan can see a huge stain that covers over half of the surface.
"You can stay here, no one will bother you as long as you keep out of their way. If Jon turns up …but he probably won’t. He hasn’t since Tom started running with Jake -- tell him I said it's okay."
"We will, thank you," Spencer says, and he drops his bag next to the mattress, remaining standing as Lisa turns and walks away.
"We could go, get a room somewhere," Ryan says. He can see better now, blurred lines forming into actual things in the dark, but that doesn't help how his heart is thumping or how out of his depth he feels.
"We should stay, she's right we need to save our money." Spencer sounds determined as he grabs for Ryan's hand, squeezing it once. "Think about our apartment, we'll get a deposit faster this way."
"Right, our apartment." Reluctantly, Ryan allows Spencer to pull back his hand, and then sits on the mattress. It sags under his weight and the surface feels damp to the touch, but right now he's too tired to care, just eases himself down and curls onto his side, his arm over Spencer when he lies down, too.
It takes a while to get comfortable, Ryan's chest is aching and he has to move so that his mouth isn't touching the mattress. Despite the way he sounded -- confident, sure that this was the right thing -- Spencer's tense, his muscles tight under Ryan's touch.
"It does make me wonder why no one took this already," Spencer says unexpectedly.
Spencer turns, his face a white blur as he leans in close. "The mattress, you'd think it would have been taken."
"Maybe it belonged to that Jon, and he's a hard ass. He could have murdered someone on here, and the mattress is soaked with blood and bad emotion. Anyone that lies on it could be tainted, pulled in by bad memories, dream of silent screams and cut throats."
"Ryan," Spencer says. "Shut up and tell me your decorating plans instead. I want to sleep tonight."
"Who says I have any?" Indignant, Ryan pokes Spencer in the thigh, jabbing hard. He keeps silent for almost five minutes after that, the building quiet except for Spencer’s breathing and rustles from other parts of the room. Then he says, "Okay, so I had some ideas. I was thinking of rust colors in the bathroom."
Ryan falls asleep in the middle of explaining how fabric flowers glued to the wall are a good idea. The reality of a damp, foul-smelling mattress is replaced by dreams of a home.
Tags: my stories:bandom