The Writers Voice
Favourite Literary Website
"This your kid?" Max asked the woman huddled in the alley.
She cowered, but the child looked up-almost cheeky-large gray eyes unblinking.
Their color belonged to a gun barrel, polished and ready for action, shiny
metallic and just as cold, unlike any eyes he'd ever seen.
Max was supposed to tell them, 'You can't stay here.' The rules were written in
stone. The biggest part of his job was hassling the homeless people and forcing
them to move on. Usually, no problem. He delivered the script in a firm voice,
but this time the child's stare stopped him.
Fortunately they didn't need to be told. She and the kid both knew the drill.
They stood, the woman on shaky limbs. Judging by size, the little one looked
maybe four-years-old, judging by the intensity of the stare much older.
Regardless of how old, the babe took charge. The child latched onto the woman's
hand and led her. Seeing how they trudged away, Max had a change of heart.
Suddenly he wanted to take them inside. Warm them up a tad, share his coffee,
give away what was left of his sack lunch-maybe someone nearer starvation would
find Max's millionth bakery-thrift-shop sandwich more palatable than he had. Max
started to make the offer, but then held his tongue.
They trudged away, roles reversed, child mothering mother, mother meekly
following in the child's footsteps. To somewhere they could light for a while
before being hassled away again. The woman walked on stiff legs, and the
youngster reached back to encourage her along.
His hand jumped up to flag them down, but the pair disappeared behind a
dumpster. Their shuffling gait showed they didn't want to get Max into trouble,
didn't want to do no harm. He wished he knew of one dry, warm, safe place for
them to go.
Max dove for his watch. Ninety minutes left in his shift. An hour and a half
before he could run after them. In his heart he ran after them now. Thing was,
Max couldn't leave his post. This job was his last chance; he'd blown everything
else. Not out of spite or foolishness but because he was plagued by some inborn
aversion to taking orders. He'd gone to college until the money ran out, never
graduated, and never found anything that suited him better than taking classes.
Night watchman was the only job left, and he barely hung onto it by the tips of
his fingernails. Max didn't hate his teachers, employers, and authority
figures-something deep inside just wouldn't submit. And, if Max couldn't manage
here, when most of the time his boss, Jenkins, left him alone, Max'd find
himself in the alleyway too. His own carcass out on the street. Jenkins meant
it-no more mess ups. And to prove it he had started showing up at weird moments
to enforce the rules. He'd already caught Max asleep at his post, dreaming of
better days. Jenkins had radar for screw-ups. Just one more slip, Jenkins
promised, and Max'd be gone, gone. Gone.
As though wearing lead shoes, Max checked the perimeter of the building. No
other loiterers. Everything safe. Everything, that is, except the little kid
with the grownup-grays. The gaze and the face that housed it nagged Max. Come
and find out the rest of the story. What you got to lose?
The moment he was relieved of duty, though the balls of his feet screamed that
they'd carried him around long enough, Max headed for the Wayside Mission. No
good going home, he wouldn't sleep anyway. Maybe they'd headed to the shelter.
When the storefront came into range, however, Max's heart did jumping jacks
inside his chest. Hanging on precariously to the little bit that separated him
from the people inside, how wise was it to let their troubles come any closer?
But those grays, god, why did I look? Max pressed on. At the entrance, a man
hunkered down in the doorway, lovingly smoking his last cigarette. His hand
brought the cig to his mouth, and he inhaled down to his toes. Then held the
smoke inside, while his fingertips caressed the cigarette and brought it out
front where he could gaze at its embers.
He didn't pull in his legs or make room; he communed with the butt. So Max
stepped over him. In contrast to Max's solitary existence, the mission teemed.
Gave Max the claustrophobic feeling he got on those rare occasions he splurged
and took the subway. People all round. All sizes and colors, pushing forward
when pushing did no good. One huge biomass. Numb but straining. No place else to
go. By comparison the rundown warehouse where Max worked each night seemed a
tower of industry. And his boarding room, which Max could span with two
outstretched fists, became a palace.
A fight erupted, but Referee Max stepped between the boxers. He didn't blame
anyone for throwing punches; the anger had to go somewhere. He just told them,
They lurched at each other again, but Max stabbed an elbow into each breast
plate and managed to keep them apart.
When it seemed, they'd save it, Max moved on. He took shallow breaths. Mission
air restricted his airways. Too many hungry campers pressing forward for a bite
of breakfast. A burnt smell permeated the building; scorched gruel probably. His
eyes watered from the lingering scent of ammonia, which the staff tossed on the
floor this and every morning at six to rush their overnight "patrons" off the
mats and back onto the streets. Good Morning, splat! Wake up call!
After the bailout, workers squeegeed down the floor, and the homeless routine of
moving from place to place till someone like Max hassled you away began in
earnest. The regulars knew exactly how long to stay out in the cold to let the
ammonia dissipate somewhat then rush back for breakfast before the
nothing-is-ever-wasted cuisine was all gone.
Max got caught in a narrow hallway with a fluid crowd moving more or less in the
general direction of the chow line. He tumbled out of the derelict mainstream to
catch his breath.
"Can I help you?" asked a red-eyed staffer. But then turned away, showing how
little he wanted to hear the newcomer's complaint.
"I'm not here for a handout," Max explained. "I'm looking for a woman and a
"We don't get many women here." And the staffer drifted away, carefully picking
his way across the squeaky ammonia-cleaned floor.
Max took hold of the guy's arm. "Perhaps this particular one came in-"
The staffer jerked his arm free. No hostility but no mistakes either. Don't
touch the goods.
Max wanted to ask why few women; where were the gals supposed to go; were they
troublemakers, or were the men who tried to jump their bones the problem? How
did a slip of female flesh manage? And what about gray-eyed babes?
But the flow of humanity carried the staffer away, sweeping him away in a Gulf
Stream current with little eddies and whirlpools of fisticuffs pulling various
scows off course.
Max lost the staff man to further inquiry. The current also carried Max, until
it broke into the large all-purpose room. Chairs grated on the linoleum. Men
gobbled breakfast. The stuff in their bowls looked and smelled like paste. Max
surveyed the patrons. Any eyes that met his quickly turned down, preferring to
commune with the lifeless gruel. No one met his gaze the way cheeky Little Gray
Max went against the current back the way he'd come and stopped to question the
smoker still holding onto his beloved filter, even though the tobacco was gone,
and the last bit of ash had blown away. "Did you see a woman with a kid come
"Boy or girl?"
Max stammered. He didn't know. His nostrils flared trying to take in enough
oxygen to fuel a response. A physical description jumped up. "Fairly young
woman, but bent over, red lumberjack shirt over six layers of clothes. Pale kid.
With strange silver-gray eyes-"
"Cain't say as I've seen 'em. You have a smoke you could loan a fellah?"
Max had no choice. His wounded feet begged him not to, but he went back inside
and volunteered to help.
The red-eyed staffer put Max on crowd control. Where the crush of humanity was
the greatest. Men and boys and the occasional woman poked and prodded and
tousled Max until all their body reached the bifurcation point, about to fly
apart into microscopic pieces.
Somehow he stuck it out. It was important that he stay. The lady of the night
might float in on the heels of that exceptional child. Today, tomorrow or some
day she had to show. This one crummy mission served the entire south side,
processing the homeless like a human trash compactor. Everyone slept and ate and
pissed so close to his neighbor that their bodies melded into one. When he found
them, Max would get them outta here. Let them sleep on his single bed, if he had
to, and he would take the floor.
By the end of the breakfast rush, he became a trusted staffer and found out that
a small storeroom served at night to house the women who tumbled in off the
street. The shelter locked them in for their own safety. But safety was
meaningless word, as out of place in the mission as women and children.
Max put in all the hours his battered feet could stand, then went home and
collapsed. So he could get to his real job on time. In case she and the child
showed up in the alleyway.
And if they didn't, back to the mission. To be compressed and milled, with his
fellowmen and women, to the point of becoming one single quivering organism. No
archetypes, no types at all. Max helped fill bellies with scorched porridge, but
those blazing eyes were the real reason he kept coming back. The look had put a
hex on him. He couldn't rest until he found out. Until he learned the gender of
the child or whether those eyes belonged to a sexless mutation. The genus
homeless evolving to fill a niche where regular children couldn't survive. Until
he figured out the truth about neuter babes, and about people adapting to the
ammonia poisoned air and compact multi-celled mission environment.
The more time he spent in the storefront mission, the more he believed natural
selection made its choices here. Smoker, staff, Max, and if they showed up child
and woman all functioned as one. A single organism. The gene pool hard at work.
Was the babe a girl-would she ever get off the streets? Have kids of her own
some day? Or a boy-who'd grow up bent on revenge? Max had to know which.
Couldn't rest until he found out. Couldn't risk leaving them on the streets, for
his sake as much as theirs.
Critique this work
Click on the book to leave a comment about this work