The line wrapped around the building and down the sidewalk. There had to be at least a hundred people waiting. The sun was starting to go down, and if they didn’t get in tonight, he didn’t know what he was going to do. Staying another night in that hellhole isn’t an option. The temperature is supposed to drop tonight.
Her little hand tugged on the bottom of his puffer jacket.
“I’m hungry, daddy,” she said.
He looked down at her, her hair pulled back in a little ponytail, her face solemn. He doesn’t see her smile as much of late. He dreams all the time of when she did. He reached over with his hand gently and brushed her cheek.
“I know sweetie. Me too,” he said.
A man behind them kept coughing. He looked down the line, trying to see if there was an end in sight. Her purple and gray winter coat that was four sizes too big won’t be enough to keep the chill of the air out tonight, not with the temperature dropping. Her blonde hair was beginning to look oily, if only they could get in tonight. He hopes for a bed. A shower would be great. They’ve been sleeping the last few nights out side, under the bridge that went over top of six mile road.
A voice called out from the doorway of the shelter.
“We only have room for a few more!” a man shouted with his hands cupped around his mouth, “ is their anyone with children?”
A few grumbles of discontent could be heard throughout the crowd. Some just lowered their head in defeat. The man adjusted the backpack over his shoulder, and motioned for his daughter to hold his hand as they made there way through the line towards the front. He almost didn’t want to believe that he might get in, because if he didn’t, his heart would surely break.
“I have a daughter…”he spoke to the man at the entrance of the shelter.
The man with the gray sweatshirt and black winter hat motioned for them to come in. Relief isn’t quite the feeling. You don’t feel relieved walking into a shelter. He tried not to feel anything.
There were dozens of different beds all over the place. The bed only consists of some pretty badly worn foam over top of metal springs. There’s a lot of quiet movement, dozens of homeless people finding a place to rest for the night. The place smelled heavy with body odor. It sat stagnant like the shame that hung overcast like the gloom of a drab mid-afternoon day. That’s what he felt. Shame. A pinch of sadness.
The man and little girl found a set of bunk beds, to claim as their home for the night. He removed the gray and blue backpack from his shoulder and tossed it down on the bed, the springs squealed. He unzipped the bag and pulled out an old looking quilted blanket and spread it out over the bottom cot.
The little girl sat down on the bed and yawned, as she struggled to take off her coat. The man reached down and assisted her, sliding her arms out of the sleeves.
“Are you tired?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
He peaked inside the bag and pulled out a beat-up looking teddy bear, and handed it to his little girl. It made her smile, no matter what it looked like, and she hugged it tight. They’ve been here several times before, and they knew the drill. In a couple hours the lights go down, and everyone is up pretty early. Sometimes the nights are so long. He never feels fully comfortable going to sleep, as he is so protective of his little girl. It’s the safest place he could really be though, and he knows it.
He sat down on the bottom cot on the edge, as his daughter lay down under the quilted blanket, her head using his puffer jacket as a pillow. She held the teddy up in the air above her, and she made it dance.
He looked down at her tenderly.
“In the morning, I’ll take you some where to get something to eat. Okay?” he said.
“Okay. And Mr. Bear too?” she said, holding the brown teddy bear up towards him.
“Of course,” he smiled.
He leaned down and kissed her forehead three times quickly, and adjusted the quilt over top of her, tucking her in tight.
“You know I love you right?” he said.
“I love you more than anything in the whole wide world.”
“I love you too, daddy,” she said.
He turned his cheek, pointed at it with his finger and asked her to give him one right there. She gave him a peck on the cheek. Get some sleep sweetie, he said.
He picked up the backpack and brought it up to the top bunk, to use as a pillow. The bed wasn’t big enough; he’d have to curl up in order to avoid hanging off. He took his blue zip up hoodie off and stuffed it in the bag. He looked behind him at his neighbor, who sat in his own bed, looking back up at him from the little black book he had in his hand. He’s an older man, with gray hair, and an unkempt beard.
“How’s it goin’,” he nodded at the old man.
He closed the little black book he had on his lap, and scratched his mangy beard.
“Carl,” he said, abruptly.
He looked at the old man confused, as he adjusted his disheveled shirt.
“I’m sorry, what?” he smiled.
“My name is Carl,” he repeated after clearing his throat.
“Martin,” he said, motioning with his hand as if responding to role-call.
He hopped up to the top bunk, which didn’t sit far above the bottom where his daughter slept, and positioned himself. The yellow foam mat did not do much to shield the metal springs that poked underneath. He looked at his fingernails, and noticed the crud that collected there. He would die for the simplicity of a nail clipper. He peaked over and down at his daughter and watched for a moment the rise and fall of her stomach as she slept and laid back down on his back. The way the springs poked, he knew he would be forced to sleep on his back, a way he doesn’t prefer, but it would have to do.
“Hey,” a whisper came from the other bed close by.
Martin looked over and saw the shadowy silhouette of Carl, which was all he could see since most of all the lights had gone out. He was half sitting up from his own bed, on his side.
“Soup,” he said.
Martin listened for a second, waiting for the rest. But Carl had gone quiet.
“I’m sorry, what?” Martin whispered back.
“They have soup over at the kitchen on Third Street.”
“Ok. Thanks,” Martin replied. He didn’t mean to judge, but the old man seemed a little odd.
Martin laid back down flat, and smiled to himself. He lay there looking up at the ceiling, one of the lights close by had a slight flicker; it would burn out soon for sure. Maybe some electrical problem, he thought. The night seemed to regurgitate on and on, endlessly. Time seemed long gone. He was glad to have refuge for the night, but this place was no comfort.
She sat at the kitchen table, an array of papers sprawled out everywhere. Her blue eyes looking even more so as the sun crept in from the window. Emily is her name. Her large gray tee shirt spelled UK across the front. The college her husband had graduated from seven years earlier.
She looked up from the letter to meet his eyes,
“What are we going to do Martin?”
His eyes opened.
He realized he was back on the cot when the metal springs jabbed into his back, the yellow foam holding no comfort.
Just a dream. Though it became a nightmare that he was never able to wake from.
It was still dark inside the shelter. He knew he couldn’t have been asleep for very long. His running mind clings to consciousness with a firm grip. He wouldn’t allow himself to sleep too long, not since everything was shot to hell.
The morning came soon after, and they made their way to the soup kitchen. A hot meal sounded good. And soon after, a hot meal sat before them. The vegetable soup sat, steaming in her spoonful, and the little girl motioned for her daddy to blow on it. The warm broth of the soup felt so comforting going down, its heat warming his innards. When it gets so cold outside, he can feel it all the way through to his bones.
Martin’s mind couldn’t help but wander as he sat in the heated soup kitchen. It has been one year since his wife Emily passed away. The economy had gone down, the factory started eliminating jobs, and his wife got the big “C.” Life is always a bitch that comes in threes, as he’s always seen it. About mid-way through treatment she developed an infection, and her immune system had all been but eradicated. The bills started rolling in, the mortgage fell behind. The truancy officer started calling, when they took his house, and things went from bad to worse.
He watched her take tiny spoon-full sips, smiling through teary eyes, his hand propping up his head. He brushed away a hair that almost went into her spoon. It broke his heart to see her here. It broke his heart even more when he had to tell little Jamie that her mom would go to sleep; only, the kind that she wouldn’t be waking from. He lived and breathed for his little Jamie. If not for her, he may not have made it quite so long.
They started down the street. He knew if they had any hope at all, he would need to find a job soon. Unemployment in town jumped to fifty-eight percent. Maybe catch the first bus out of this place, he thought to himself.
They rounded the corner, and the sound of help was carried by the wind, and it caught his ear. He looked to the left, and between two brick buildings he could see two men kicking a man while he was down. The thought of continuing on his way crossed his mind. It’s not my problem, occurred to him. He hesitated, when his eyes darted down towards his little daughter, a frightened look had crossed her face. What kind of world is she growing up to face? He knelt down in front of her, zipping up her coat, and adjusting it on her. He looked at her rosy-cheeked face, and he knew what he needed to do.
“I need you to stand right here, okay sweetie? Daddy will be right back.”
He started down the alleyway and began to think of all the what-ifs? What if he wasn’t right back? What if he was injured? God damn it what have I gotten myself in to?
They were still stomping away on the man that lay on the ground. The two men had brown coats on, with winter caps, they looked familiar from a previous shelter, he reasoned. They’re both average build, but still, two against one. This wasn’t the best of ideas.
“Hey guys! Leave him alone,” he said, his voice not sounding as strong as he had prepared in his mind.
They spun around and gave Martin the one over.
“This doesn’t concern you, buddy. You need to walk away,” one of them said, with steam from the cold air, rising above him.
“Listen…I don’t want any trouble. But I think this guys had enough.”
They turned, and both walked towards him. Martin would like to say that he put up a good fight. He would like to say, when retelling this story, that he fought the good fight. But after the brick hit him, he didn’t remember much at all.
The next thing he saw was his daughters face, hovering above his. She was mouthing something, but everything seemed foggy.
Finally Martin was able to discern his daughter’s voice, fighting through the haze.
“Hey…I’m okay,” Martin muffled.
It felt like the worst hangover of his life, his eyes squinting from a sun that seemed ten times too bright. He managed to a sitting upright position, and looked around. The ally had been abandoned.
“Are you okay?” he asked his daughter, checking her out, not waiting for an answer.
“Yeah, those men are gone.”
“They didn’t bother you did they?”
Martin got to his feet; his head pounding like an explosion had gone off in his head. The man who he had come to help was long gone. Not to say that he expected a thank you, but geez. He looked over to the end of the alley, back towards the street, at the cars and people walking by.
“The man left daddy. He left you this note.”
He looked at Jamie confused, and grabbed the note from her hand. It read:
“They jumped me for my coat. I thank you so much for your help. As a token of my gratitude, what little I can give you, is this lottery ticket. I haven’t checked the numbers. I wish you the best of luck.”
He hadn’t even left his name. How odd, he thought. On second thought, he never even got a good look at him, to see what he looked like.
They made it to the street, and Martin looked left and right, looking for this mystery man. He wasn’t even sure he would recognize him if he saw him.
“Well honey…I’m sorry about that. There is a lot of ugliness in the world, and I just wanted you to know that some things we can not stand for.”
She never said anything, but she looked at him. She stood there in her big purple and gray jacket that was two times too big. They headed back down the street, with no real place to go. Maybe if the lottery ticket won a couple of dollars that would buy his Jamie a little meal. But he doubted it would be anything.
They walked into the circle k, the door dinging as they walked in. There was no one in line, and the cashier was there waiting.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Yeah, I was just wanting to check on this ticket, and see if it won anything.”
Martin handed it to the man, and he looked at it, and ran it through this machine.
The cashiers face had gone sheet white, and his eyes very wide, as he looked back at Martin. He tried to speak, but seemed to not be able to find the words.
“Did I get some money?” Martin asked.
The cashier could only acknowledge with a nod. Martin’s face went blank, and expressionless.
“How much did I win?” Martin asked in a monotone voice.
“Uh….all of it…” the cashier responded, flabbergasted.
He handed Martin back the ticket. His eyes scanned down to the bottom to see the printed lines. Enter for a chance to win two hundred- million dollars!
“How much did we win daddy?” her eyes lit up, a smile rising from the corners of her mouth.
He stood there, wordless, motionless for a good minute, unable to find his words. A tear formed and streamed down his face. He looked down at her, and back at the ticket that he held in his hand.
“All of it…” was all he could manage.
He put his hand on the top of her head, and grabbed her and pulled her close to him. He hoisted her up in his arms, and wrapped his arms around her tight. He could feel his heart beating hard in his chest.
“All of it…” he said again. He said it a few more times, over the next few minutes. Eventually he found his words. I never got his name, Martin thought to himself. “And to think, I would have just taken a thank you…”