Marcus walked slowly. Gregor, he knew was not far behind, but speed would not help him. Gregor had been less surprised by Marcus’ sudden appearance than he had hoped. Still, seeing that Marcus was alive had set the boy free.
Gregor smelled him. Suddenly running, Marcus used his speed over the pull of gravity, to run up the steep side of the old factory. It was a trick, and Gregor, still living in his castle, had not thought of it. The bricks were rough. Pulling off his shirt, Marcus scraped his back along their rough sides. “It is good,” he once again spoke to the night, “that I haven’t washed.”
Skin and sweat was left behind and to creatures of the night the smell was strong. To Gregor it was alluring.
Running down the building was far more difficult. With much effort and many wounds, Marcus had learned to slowly circle the building getting ever lower. When the ground was close, he jumped. Learning the landing had been painful and one of the many times he was glad he healed so quickly.
He heard him. As quiet as he thought he was, Gregor made a slithering sound that Marcus was all too familiar with. Once again he ran.
Knowing that Gregor must surely have arrived at his marking, he was glad to know he could not hear his rage, for rage there surely would have been. “Now a shower.” He wrinkled his nose.
Marcus turned south, looking for a warmer place. He felt the cold, the pain and always the hunger. He needed a place to rest, a place where the warmth meant a public rest room could be found.
The picture, the boat, the hiker and the swimmer told him that a park was not far. He was sure no one would be sitting on the shore in the darkness.
Walking out of the forest’s edge, Marcus saw that he was not alone. The couple, wrapped in a blanket, sat close, arms encircling each other.
Sarah had been waiting. Marcus meant to turn away but had found himself drawn to the tremulous smile she’d worn. She had bitten her lower lip to hold back tears.
“I’ve missed you.” She pulled him over, hand holding tight to his forearm.
“You have been too busy to miss me.” Marcus saw the boys, too many for him to track, walking beside her on the journey home.
“They’re not you.” She put on her prettiest pout and he found himself stepping closer. “I’ve been trying to forget you, forget that kiss.”
Marcus’ carefully raised one eyebrow. “What kiss?”
The slap was gentle, her blue eyes laughing. “The one my father interrupted, or perhaps the kiss in the hall, that was more demanding and,” she smiled knowingly, “I’m sure you remember them.”
“Yes. I am not dead yet.”
“Soooo, are you saying you’ll remember them until the day you die?”
“I believe that is exactly what I’m saying.” He pulled her to him, not caring that some of his classmates had stopped to watch, but Sarah pulled back.
“Not here.” She looked over her shoulder, voice husky. “I want to take your clothes off and I certainly can’t do that here. Tonight, when it gets dark, meet me at the lake. It’s not that cold yet.”
“I can take blankets. It’s not harvest time. I still have a little time to myself.”
“What am I going to do when it’s harvest time and you work late?”
“Perhaps we will head to school a little earlier than needed.”
“Tonight then, right after the sun goes down.”
“I’ll be watching the sun very carefully tonight.” He’d watched the sun dive below the horizon.
Intending to go only far enough forward to see if there was a place, other than the cold lake water, where he could wash, he was sorry when they turned to him. He was surprised to see it was an older couple sitting on the shore, holding hands. The faces turned to him showed little fear, but Marcus saw the man reach for something hidden beneath the blanket.
“I mean you no harm.” He took a quick step back. “I am looking for a place to clean. I have been travelling a long time.”
“Martha, don’t get up.” He rose.
“I’m Zachary, this is my wife Martha.” His narrowed eyes looked Marcus over, noting the worn clothes, the shoes that barely fit. “Looks like you really do need to clean up, need a hair cut and some new clothes too.” He paused, eyes searching the forest’s edge. “You alone?”
“Yes,” he heard his heart add, ‘I hope.’
For a moment no one spoke.
“There are a few cabanas about a mile down the beach. I don’t know if they’re open. Please don’t break in. Every year vandals cost our town quite of bit of our tax dollars. If they’re open, there will be running water, flush toilets and paper towels.”
“I will not break the locks.” Marcus smiled.
He left them sitting on the beach, a gentle voice soothing his wife. Then the kiss and once again…
Marcus remembered feeling Sarah’s small hand in his. His hard with callouses, hers soft. It had felt right. In the half-light, Marcus had studied her face. The blue eyes, small upturned nose, soft pliant lips that looked ready for kissing. Her delicate bones had been visible beneath creamy, unblemished skin. Soft brown curls had ringed her face and Marcus didn’t know if he’d be able to wait.
As they approached the lake they saw they were not alone. The couple sat unmoving, arms around each other. The woman’s soft dusty hair hung to her waist. Her head lay on a muscular shoulder.
“Maybe tomorrow.” There was disappointment in Marcus’ voice.
“I don’t want to wait any longer. Let’s go back to your barn.”
The man turned, looking at his son. “The barn would not be very comfortable. We sold the hay.”
For a moment Father looked at son, son looking at his father, then the two began to laugh.
“I’m not…” Sarah blushed, holding tighter to Marcus’ arm.
“Not sorry, I hope.” Kate looked at her son, “But as a mother, I have to tell you that you are both too young. I do understand.” Her eyes smiled. “Marcus, why don’t you introduce us.”
“Sarah, this is my father, my mother. Mom, Dad, this is Sarah. I had hoped to introduce her to you in another fashion.”
“I imagine you had.” His mothers voice was jingling. “Hello Sarah. It’s nice to meet you.”
Finally Sarah smiled. “It’s nice to meet you too.”
Answering the question, Marcus could not find a way to ask, Allen Rollins grinned. “We weren’t looking for you.” He pointed to the lake, the moonlight glowing golden on its quiet surface. Clouds floated noiselessly, their shadows peaking around the trees. “This is where I asked your mother to marry me. We still come here when we have a chance. Harvest times coming. Busy then, not so, as I see you already realized, now.”
His voice turned serious. “I think you should take Sarah home, her father will be worried. Walk her to the door. There is no need to hide how you feel. Unless,” he turned to Sarah, “you feel differently.”
“Mr. Rollins,” she stood on tippy toes, kissing Marcus’ red cheek. “I am very proud to stand next to your son. I don’t know if he told you that he thought we should wait, that he said he would wait for me. I…I didn’t know then what I know now.” Once again she turned to Marcus. “I will wait. We’d better go now or my father will call the police.” She turned back. “I am really glad to meet you.”
Marcus nodded to his parents. “I’ll be home shortly.”
He grinned and Sarah gently slapped his arm. “No stops I promise.”
“A kiss good night would be nice.”
“Allen Rollins, don’t embarrass your son.”
Marcus had heard their kiss as they walked back to town.
“Did she wait?” He spoke to the brightening sky. “We were young, too young. I hope she did not, though it would be nice to know that she had…at least for a while. Now, it is only she, I cannot remember her name.”
He walked quietly to the cabana, leaning heavily against the rough wood, eyes tightly closed. He could not see her face. He’d been looking into her eyes, at her face, the beauty of the lake, even the words they had spoken began to fade.
“What color are they? What time of year?” There was no reply. “Who was at the waters edge?”
He shook his head, pushing the frustration away. “I don’t have time. Gregor will be searching. He leaned closer to the cabana’s walls; no sounds came to his ears.
The door was open. The water was warm, the paper towels plentiful. “Better,” he whispered to the closed door. “If I cannot smell myself, perhaps he will not find me.”
Night deepened and Marcus walked on. The sky began to lighten. Still Marcus walked. Only when the grey of night began to sparkle with the pink of the coming dawn did he look for a place to rest.
He pushed the grate aside, climbing into the darkness of the sewer. “There are too many dark places.”
He looked at the rats as they came to investigate the intruder. “Food.”
Even in the middle of the night, the city was bright. Marcus, shielding his eyes as best he could, was unable to read what the garishly lit signs said. He watched quietly from the darkest corner. The doors kept swinging, the lights like that of a strobe, so many times did people enter or exit the building. Always smiling, hope on the faces of those entering, misery etched into the faces of those leaving.
He struggled to watch, forcing himself to remain still. It would be so easy.
It was the little girl, tugging on the man’s arm that caught his attention.
“Please, daddy.” There were tears in her voice. “Don’t go. We don’t have the money. Baby needs food.” She looked at the dollars, balled up in his fist. “Dad, that’s all we have.”
“It’s all I have.” He pulled away from where she’d been trying to take the money from his hands.
“It’s the only way I’m gonna get more. Besides,” his voice grew dangerous. “I earned it.”
She drew in the air loudly. Pulling herself up as tall as she could be, she nearly looked him in the eye.
Marcus saw then that she was older than he first thought. It was the lack of food that made her seem so small.
“That’s my money. I earned it. Give it back.”
The slap sent her to her knees, and Marcus found himself running to her side.
“I think you should give her the money.” He heard her behind him, pushing herself away from where he stood.
“No, you’re not. You are not fast or nearly strong enough.” He reached out, grabbing the man’s wrist, catching the money as it fell. He felt his eyes grow dark, his anger barely held in check. The wrist snapped and suddenly he was ashamed. “You’d better go inside.”
Wrist free, he did not look back, did not check on his daughter, closing the casino door quickly behind him.
Marcus bit his lip, swallowing his hunger. He turned, money held in his outstretched hand, eyes looking at he dirt. He did not want to see the fear in hers.
“I am sorry. Please take it. I will not hurt you.”
It was obvious by her slow, cautious movements that she was afraid, but her need was stronger. Money in hand, she ran.
When he could no longer see her, Marcus moved far from the lights, breathing deeply forcing his anger away. He was hungry, desperately hungry.
There was so much blood. It would be so easy. He fought with a desire that told him they did not deserve the lives they wasted. He fell hard against the wall, sliding to the ground.
Then she was there.
“Too much to drink?”
He did not look up. “Too little.”
He snorted. “Very, but you cannot help me. Please, you are very much in danger.”
He heard her step back, but she did not run. “I saw what you did for that girl. You got a good heart hiding in there. I’ll show you the way to the hospital. There’s a homeless shelter there. They’ll get you something to eat.”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Because I’m a whore with no customers. Goddamn casinos. Johns come out so poor they can’t even afford an old whore like me and I am cheap.”
He followed. “You should not…”
“Please save the speech. I’ve heard it too many times. Even tried some of the things they told me would help. I always end up back here cause those people who say they want to help don’t mean it. I’m their favorite charity, only as long as they can brag about their good works. Then I’m just another used up old whore on her way to being a bag lady.”
She saw him, a few steps behind her, recoil at the bright lights but did not comment. “Go round the back, the shelters close to the morgue. Ironic isn’t it.”
“What is ironic?”
A tear fell to the breast of the torn blouse she wore. “Do my best. It’s saying something, proving something by doing the opposite. Like, I guess, saying I’ll feed you when I’m really taking the food away.”
“I see it is ironic to say you are helping people live when you are putting them so close to where they will die.”
“You must have been a quick study.
She laughed, a rich hearty sound and Marcus wished he could bury himself in its tone.
“I gotta leave you here. Gotta find a way to make some money.”
“I have none to give.”
“Figured that. Skinny, dressed in rags, too young to look so old. Go on now. I have to go before someone notices and tries once again to rescue my soul.”
Marcus watched her leave. He tried to memorize her face but it kept slipping away. Another kind stranger he was lucky to meet. Another lost soul.
He did not go to the shelter. The morgue offered him what he needed and he quietly entered, following the scent of blood. The young woman lay on her back, blue alabaster skin under the cold white sheet.
Marcus could hear the men in the other room complaining. There were too few dead and he wondered why they did not think this was good.
Lying on her back, blood pooled in her ankles and buttocks. Marcus turned her over, taking the scalpel. Blood, partially coagulated would not flow.
Using an instrument, much like a spoon he was able to feed. The mirror sat beside the door. A quick glance as he passed brought about a sudden stabbing pain and Marcus stumbled onto the street.
Soon the morning would come. He needed shelter. There seemed to be no place to go. In the narrow alley between casinos the other homeless lay. In the chill night air, they hid in boxes. Some covered themselves in newspapers. Now, as the day approached, they prowled the streets looking for food.
Marcus crawled into an empty box, hoping the cardboard would be thick enough. He wondered why.
“To out live you, if only for an hour.” He told the image of Gregor.
“It’s been a while.” The invisible monster did not reply. “You know I am still here. I let you see me. The child,” he almost grinned, “she lost her bicycle. You lost a meal. It was worth the hurt. Do you know where I am now?”
He was about to chuckle, when he saw the face he’d seen in the mirror. His laughter died.
It wasn’t new, but it had been the most beautiful thing Marcus had ever seen. The bike had been carefully tended, dents hammered out, shiny black paint applied, red flames decorated the fenders. He’d just turned eleven and had gotten it for his birthday. There’d been pride in his father’s eyes as he watched his son cheering, dancing around the bike. His sister had clapped, asking when she could get one. It had to be pink. She made sure they knew.
“Dad, when can you teach me?”
“Right now. We have to go the road. It’ll hurt more if you fall but it’s easier to learn on than dirt. You ready?”
Marcus heard him laugh as he grabbed the bike, running down the driveway.
The directions were easy. It was balancing the bike that proved difficult. Two scraped knees and scratched palms later and Marcus was riding down the street. The first attempt at a quick stop landed him on the grass, teeth biting down on his tongue. But Marcus was determined and he was riding back to the house before his father could get to him.
“I’m fine dad. Take more than that to stop a Rollins, right dad?”
“You got it. Came over on the Mayflower. Families fighters.”
“Am I doing it right?”
“Are you flying down the road all by yourself?
The grin was returned and Marcus braked more gently, coming to rest next to his father.
“How’d you do it dad? I know it costs a lot and we…”
“Son,” he interrupted, pulling him into his arms. “We’ll always have enough for you and Cathy.”
“God, not another why. Don’t you ever get tired of asking why?”
His dimples grew. “Don’t think so, so why?
“Because we love you. Because you and Cathy are the culmination of all that came before.”
“What does that mean?”
His father laughed, a rich throaty laugh that never failed to make him smile.
“It means that,” he stopped speaking, fingers scratching his chin. “I can’t define it exactly. It’s like the peak of a mountain. The base, the center, everything on the way up comes together in the peak. The peak is what all that climbing was for.”
“I think that’s a big responsibility. I’m not ready for all that.”
“You will be. Now enough talk. We’ve got to get you cleaned up for dinner. Your mother will make a fuss over your cuts.”
“That’s because it’s her job, and she loves me.”
Allen Rollins barked out a laugh. “When did you learn that?”
He remembered his reply. “She told me the other day, when you told her she was being silly. Mom said it was your job to teach us how to handle life’s cuts and bruises and her job to kiss them better, but I think it really makes her feel more better than me.”