This is the second round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For these second-round submissions, it’s the letter “B”.
Readers have a month to vote for their favorite story in each round and points will be assigned to each writer.
For each letter, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “B”.
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Copyright 2020 – E. J. D’Alise
(2,240 words – approx. reading time: about 9 minutes based on 265 WPM)
Nicky looked down at the paper in her hand and then back up at the house in front of her. The numbers matched the numbers on the paper, but the house — well, it had seen better days. Plastic covered one of the windows, the screen door hung partially open, and the porch hadn’t been cleaned for . . . well, it looked like ever.
With some hesitation, she strode up the steps and knocked on the door.
The barking of a small dog startled her. The creature must have been waiting just on the other side of the door for some hapless stranger to trigger it.
Nicky waited. After about a half-minute, she turned to leave. She was almost at the curb when she heard the dog yelp and go quiet. The door cracked open a few inches.
“Hello?” she said, taking a few steps back toward the house.
The door opened a few more inches, and a slice of a face appeared. A woman, she judged, but it could have been any matter of being.
“What do you want?” the slice of face asked with a voice indicating either drunken stupor or having just woken from a nap.
“I’m looking for Tom,” Nicky answered, “does he live here?”
“There’s no Tom here,” the slice of face answered just before slamming the door shut. On cue, the presumed dog resumed barking, signaling the end of the encounter.
Still staring at the door, Nicky jumped at the sound of the voice at her back.
“You’re looking for Thomas?” it asked.
She turned to see an older lady standing on the sidewalk. She was accompanied by what looked like a misshapen rat but was probably a dog. Nick started toward the lady but stopped as the rat-dog lunged at her.
“Yes,” Nicky answered as she nervously eyed the beast straining against the feeble strength of its owner. “Do you know him?”
The woman took a puff from her cigarette and then left it at her lips as she grabbed the leash with both hands and pulled the rat-dog back.
“He ain’t lived here for a while,” she answered. “Lost his job late last year and had to vacate the place.” The woman turned her eyes from Nicky and looked toward the house. “The place sure went to crap after he left.” Reaching for her cigarette, she almost lost control of the rat-dog. Luckily, the leash wasn’t long enough for the beast to reach Nicky.
“Do you know where he moved to?” Nicky asked.
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Tom adjusted his slightly undersized parka and pulled the hood over his head. Someone had pinched his knitted hat a few nights back as he slept in the underpass favored by many of the homeless. The hood didn’t keep his head as warm, but it was still better than letting the wind have its way with his neck and head.
He made his way toward the church. He didn’t feel like listening to another sermon about the fabled afterlife with J. C. & Company, but he hadn’t landed any jobs for a while, and being hungry wasn’t a good thing to endure for long. Tom figured he would stand a better chance of landing temporary work if he had the strength to do the job.
The landscaping business that had kept him employed until the previous month had closed for the season. He had helped load dirt, plants, timber, and other merchandise onto customer’s vehicles, and it had earned him enough money to pay for food and clothes, but not enough to rent a place of his own, let alone save any money.
He shouldn’t have been lifting heavy weights, but he enjoyed the work and enjoyed interacting with customers. But during the winter, the demand for manual laborers was low, and too many were willing to work for next to nothing to fill the few jobs.
Tom thought back at his decision to take six weeks off work last year. He didn’t regret it, but he lost his janitor job because of it, and the company was not interested in re-hiring him. He’d been a good worker but these days companies had no loyalty to employees. The cheaper and disposable the help, the better the bottom line; it was the motto of most businesses.
A few friends kept saying they might be able to place him in other jobs, but those hopes never amounted to anything, and he saw them less and less often. Tom knew the longer he stayed jobless and homeless, the more it would seal his fate.
He arrived at the church and took a seat for the sermon before breakfast. After, he would try the lumberyard. Perhaps someone needed cheap manual labor for the day.
At least tonight, he would sleep at the shelter. The social worker who made the rounds of the camps had given him a slip for a one-night stay. One-night beds were assigned by lottery, but social workers always carried a few preassigned slips, handing them out to people who hadn’t gotten lucky with the draw for a while. He liked that shelter and had a good relationship with the people running it. Tom would have loved working there, but they were operated strictly by volunteers.
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Nicky thanked the lady and headed back to her car. The vehicle was out of place among the other cars. Her car was likely more expensive than many of the cars on the block combined.
She headed to the hotel to recoup and do some more research. It had taken four months of searching to get this far, and she wasn’t about to give up now.
Back at the hotel, she showered and changed. As she dressed, she thought about what it would be like to live on the street, not knowing where her next meal was coming from, not having a safe place — let alone a bed — to sleep on.
As she put her sweater on, the movement triggered a small sharp pain on her side. The scar had healed, but it still occasionally reminded her of its presence.
She finished dressing, ordered a light lunch from room service, and fired up her laptop. She ran down the list of shelters in the city. Not many accepted single men. Most were for families only, a few were for women, a few more for recovering addicts.
She wrote down the names of two likely prospects and waited for the afternoon to pass. Early evening was her best bet to find him.
The knock at the door distracted her from her search. She told the bellboy to set up the meal by the window and, after tipping him, sat down to eat as she looked out at the somewhat dreary view.
A few hours later, she headed out.
The first shelter was a bust. Although listed as accepting single males, all their beds were currently occupied by families.
The second shelter had people milling about, waiting for the evening lottery to see who would score one of the single beds held in reserve. As she walked toward the office, she was self-conscious about just out of place she was. Most people looked at her with indifference, some with obvious interest born of curiosity, and a few with open hostility on their faces.
It took a few minutes before she tracked down the manager, and after a few minutes spent explaining her quest, the manager looked around as she waited.
“There,” he said, pointing at a man with a blue parka talking to one of the volunteers. “That’s Tom.”
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Tom struck out at the lumber yard. One of the contractors said he might have some work the next day, but it didn’t sound overly promising. Still, it was worth the walk. He looked up at the sky and saw the distant clouds. Tonight would be cold, and possibly wet.
He started his six miles walk to the shelter.
Outside the shelter, people milled about, their numbered slips in hand. Tom felt guilty carrying the sure-thing in his pocket. As he walked into the building, he passed old-man Jimmy. Tom knew him. Jimmy had been born with legs that didn’t work all that well and a brain to match. A very nice guy, even if not all there, he’d lost his family a few years ago and had ended up on the street.
“Hey, Jimmy,” Tom said, squatting next to the man, ” how are you doing?”
“Tom! Nice to see you!”
Jimmy’s voice was high-pitched, and he always sounded happy, with a smile to match the voice.
“You waiting for the lottery?” Tom asked.
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied. He lowered his voice as if telling a secret before continuing. “I feel lucky tonight.”
Tom smiled at the man and felt the weight of the slip in his pocket.
“Hold on, a second, will you,” he told Jimmy. “I’ll be right back.”
Tom walked up to one of the three volunteers handing out numbered slips and talked to her a few minutes before both walked back to Jimmy.
“Jimmy, you were right! This nice lady said you got a bed for the night. She’ll help you there, ok?” Tom helped him up as he spoke and took Jimmy’s slip as his own. The chances were small, but maybe he too would get lucky and get a bed.
Just then, he noticed Brad, the manager, pointing his way. It took a moment before he noticed the woman walking toward him, but when he did, Tom turned and quickly walked out the door. He looked both ways and opted for the alley, almost breaking into a run.
He risked a look just before turning the corner. No sign of her. He sprinted toward the other end of the alley and squeezed between the bent gates and past to the drainage canal. Without looking back, he kept walking at a fast pace, his heart beating hard.
It was dark, windy, and drizzly when he made it back to the underpass. The best places were already taken, but a friend made room for Tom to sit on a couple of layers of dry cardboard and even offered a piece as a windbreaker. Muttering a few words of thanks, Tom slumped down. Troubled sleep came slowly. How has she found him? He could guess the why but wanted no part of it.
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He woke while still dark. The wind and rain had stopped, but it was much colder. He looked up to see what had awakened him. The social worker van was going down the line, handing out blankets. A waste of money, Tom thought. Most would be left there and eventually stolen. It was difficult walking around with blankets in addition to the other meager possessions. But, he had to admit to looking forward to a bit of extra warmth.
He closed his eyes and waited for the van to make its way to his spot.
He froze. He didn’t know the voice but could guess who it was. He opted to keep his head down and not answer. A stupid and ineffective plan it was because she asked his buddy if she could sit between them, and in seconds, they were side-by-side.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He looked up. He could barely make out her features but saw the reflections of her tears.
“My mother had no right to do what she did,” Nicky continued.
Tom looked away, memories pushing tears from his eyes.
“Why didn’t you take the money?” Nicky asked.
Tom looked back at her, then looked away before answering.
“It wasn’t about the money. It was never about the money.”
Nicky nodded. She already knew that, but wanted to hear it.
“So, what now?” Tom asked.
“So, now you come with me.”
“And do what? I don’t want charity, and you don’t owe me anything.” Tom’s voice had an involuntary edge to it, but Nicky wasn’t worried.
“Tom, I never knew my father had an affair and an illegitimate child. If it —”
“Bastard,” Tom said. “Bastard is the correct term.”
Nicky paused. She was a businesswoman; she negotiated contracts, drafted bids, and handled the Board of Directors, but this was much harder.
With a softer voice, she continued, ignoring his interruption.
“If it hadn’t been for you donating your kidney, I’d never had found out I had a half-brother. As it was, finding you took me the better part of the year.”
“As I said, I didn’t do it for the money,” Tom said. ” You can just say ‘thank you’ and walk away.”
“No. I found my brother, and I’m not losing you again.”
“Are you saying the family now wants me back?”
“Me; I want you in my life. I want you to come work for the charity I’m setting up. I’ll raise the money, and you can help me decide how best to help get people off the streets and back on their feet.”
Nicky got up and offered Tom her hand.
“Listen to the lady, Tom,” his buddy said. “I’m tired of sleeping under bridges.”
Tom looked at his friend, looked up at Nicky, and grasped her outstretched hand. Nicky helped him up, and they walked to the waiting van.
That’s it. This post has ended . . . except for the stuff below.
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