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Alec's coughing seemed to be getting worse. Long, drawn out coughs, wet with the mucus rattling around in his chest. For all I knew, he could have caught pneumonia out here. I wasn't sure what to look for. I kept feeling his head, and it was always abnormally warm to the touch. I really began to worry when Alec got quiet. No more struggling, no more whining, no more tears. He just held my hand and followed me without a word, a slightly off-balanced sway in his walk, as if he was getting dizzy in the head. Even his little palms were sweaty. As I turned him to look at me, I noticed that he had gone almost completely white....maybe even with a hint of blue. I had to get him inside. Some place warm. This air is no good for him. The grey skies overhead wouldn't hold the rain for much longer, and the wind was getting colder by degree.
"How are you feeling, Alec?" I asked him.
He pouted, "I feel yucky..." His voice had become frail and distant. And all he could think about was, "I wanna go home, Taryn."
"I know you do. But for right now, why don't we...umm...uhhh...." I looked all around me and saw a little restaurant not far from us. I know that we looked pretty bad at the moment, but if we straightened ourselves up enough, the might let us sit inside for a little bit. We might even get some free bread out of it, if we're lucky. "...We're gonna go to a restaurant, ok? Just like when we take Gramma out for her birthday."
"Unh unh, Gammy's birthday comes when the snow comes." He said.
"That's right, Alec. But this is just a pretend birthday. So we can play whenever we want. Alright?" I don't know if it was the fact that I made a bit of a 'game' out of the whole thing, or that Alec was just too lightheaded to resist me, but he nodded softly and took my hand again so I could lead him inside.
I made ourselves as presentable as possible before going inside. However, I did notice the initial reaction that the hostess gave us before putting on a rather professional grin. The embarrassment was enough to crush anyone's spirit, but right now, food and shelter is what I was worried about.
"Are you two carrying out?" She asked me.
I cleared my throat, but my voice remained soft. "Dining in, please..."
Alec coughed again, and I rubbed his back in a lame attempt to keep him comfortable until we could get seated. The hostess looked me up and down for a moment, her smile getting more fake by the second, but she didn't say anything. She just guided us to a booth next to the window...and away from the other customers. She gave us some menus, but I already knew that I wouldn't be able to afford anything in there. Nothing more than an appetizer, anyway. And that might take up all the funds we had left.
One good thing, however, is that they immediately brought us a small basket of bread and two tall glasses of ice water. As cold as it was outside, that water never tasted so good. Alec got a saucer, and he grabbed two big handfuls of bread. I broke them open for him and used a knife to spread some butter on there for him. "Don't put too much." He told me.
I had barely given it back to him before he was stuffing his face. Munch munch munch...my God, he must have been starving. It's good to know that the illness hasn't affected his appetite.
I watched my baby brother devouring everything on his plate, and a mixed feeling came over me. Part of me was really happy that he was getting some nourishment, and I was happy that this little plan of mine was working out. But another part of me was thinking...'This is what we've been reduced to?' I guess you could say that I was thankful, despite the melancholy undertones of the sensation. Alec gently turned the tides as he bit into the bread and got a playful smear of butter on the tip of his little nose. It was adorable. It was the first genuine laugh that I'd had all day.
Our waitress came over a moment or two later, and asked if we were ready to order. Which meant that they'd probably be kicking us out soon. Much sooner than I thought in fact. But I tried to buy us some more time. At least until we had some of the 'chill' taken out of our bones and got some more bread in our stomachs. "Umm...we haven't really looked at the menus yet. Do you think we can have a little more time?"
"Sure thing. Just let me know when you're ready."
"Ok. Thank you." I said. And as she walked away, I made sure to start filling up as much as I could on bread and butter myself. I kept trying to swallow it down fast, using a few gulps of ice water to help make it easier. But before long, the waitress was back to ask if we were ready again.
"You boys figure out what you want?" She said.
"Apple pancakes!" Alec said, and I hushed him immediately.
"We just need a few more minutes." I told her. "My brother is a 'picky' eater." She and I both looked over at Alec, who was already reaching for his third bread roll and jamming into his tiny mouth. "Except for bread that is. He likes bread."
"Yeah. I noticed." She said. "Alright. Well, I'll be right over there. Give me a sign when you're ready."
She walked away again, but I notice that she was watching us this time. I'm sure I'm not the first runaway kid in town to pull a scam like this one. A few whispers were exchanged between a couple members of the restaurant staff, and I knew that we only had a minute or two left in comfort. So I spread out one of the napkins, and I started reaching into the bread bowl to put a few more rolls on it. Something tells me that we were going to have to take this to go.
"Hey!" Alec said, his mouth full. "You're hogging it all. What about me?"
"Shhhh!!!" I said, grabbing a few pats of butter as well. I don't know how long I was going to be able to hold onto it without it melting, but it didn't matter. I took some anyway, and I wrapped it up in the napkin and hid it down in the booth beside me.
I think they saw that, because a man in a button down shirt and a tie came over to our table. He had a gold nametag that said 'Bruce' on it, and I figured him for the manager. "Alright, fellas. You two want to get something to eat, or what?"
Peeking up at him sheepishly, hiding the bread filled napkin at my side, I said, "Can we just...have a little more time. Everything on the menu looks so tasty..."
But he wasn't buying it this time. He rolled his eyes, and then he took the bread basket away. Not that it mattered. I had stolen everything but one roll anyway. "Alright, kids. Time to go. Let's move." He said.
"Sir, my brother's very sick. If we could just stay for five more minutes..."
"They have shelters for that, kid. This isn't one of them. This is a business. Now go on. You've got something in your belly, now beat it." He said, and sadly...I had no choice but to get up and take Alec by the hand so we could leave.
I don't think he saw the napkin full of bread that I stole, or the butter knife to go with it. If he did, he didn't say anything. I was escorted out the front door, with Alec coughing and shuffling beside me....and soon, we were back out in the cold again.
At least the bread would keep us from being too hungry for the next 24 hours. Although, I never know with Alec. One second he likes something, the next, he wants nothing to do with it.
Sighhhh...my mom should be wrapping things up with her business trip soon. There were even a few occasions when she came home early from a trip. If I wasn't too scared to be seen around the house by Chuck of one of the neighbors, I'd go back to check. Probably not a good idea though. The LAST thing I wanted was to get caught! Besides, if Alec so much as got a peek at our house, and she wasn't there, he'd kick, bite, and scratch, with a vengeance trying to get home again. I'm sure he's saving his biggest tantrum for last. What a grand finale THAT'S gonna be.
Whatever. This can't happen again. It just can't. My mom has to travel a lot, and we simply can't run away from home every time we're left alone with Chuck. I've got to get her to listen. I've got to MAKE her understand that I'm not making things up this time. I don't know how I'm going to do that, as I've been notorious for running off every man she's ever had in that house since my dad's been gone. Hell, even the plumber got an even eye from me when he came to fix the kitchen sink. But I'll find a way. For me, for Alec, for all of us as a family.
And something tells me that I'm going to need a strong family unit when Jason and his friends expose me at school. I never should have done that. I never should have let my emotions spill over like that. So stupid. My whole life...ruined in the blink of an eye. I wish I could just disappear.
Just vanish from my life completely. How else can I hope to survive?
My arms and legs went numb on me as the sun began to set over the city. I could barely keep my eyes open at this point. Alec kept quiet for a while, but I really just wanted to find a place to sit down for a minute, and maybe take a nap. I was so exhausted that my eyes burned with every blink, my mind wandering as if in a dreamlike state. Alec was now coughing to the point of almost gagging from it, and that was the only thing that kept me focused. The sky went black, but the city never stopped moving. It just went on and on. The flow of traffic and pedestrians were practically pulling me in, like the powerful undertow of a raging river. It tired me out even faster.
I finally reached a point where I couldn't take any more traveling. Not another step. We were in a park, and I took Alec with me to sit underneath the slide with me. Luckily, he was too sick to argue. Plus the long walks had tired his little legs out as well. He instinctively crawled over me to sit sideways in my lap. His arms went around my neck, and he whimpered softly as nuzzled his face into me. All I could do was hug him back. I was helpless to do anything else. He was probably riddled with germs, but I held him close anyway.
It had only been a week...LESS than a week...and I already felt like my baby brother was dying on me.
I had to sleep for a while. I couldn't help myself. But I made sure to clasp my fingers together so that I'd feel it if Alec tried to get up and walk around on his own. I just...I needed 20 minutes. That's all. 20 Minutes...and I'll be able to get up and keep going. Ugh...I just wish that my eyes weren't burning so much. It made it hard to keep them closed.
I drifted off almost immediately. Occasionally Alec would squirm or cough or sniffle against the side of my neck. But I'd gently cuddle him for a few seconds, and he'd go right back to sleep, with me not far behind him. When I was finally able to regain consciousness, it seemed like hours had passed. I had no idea what time it was, but it was considerably darker than it was before.
Alec's face was even more pale than before, and I began to panic for a second when he didn't wake up right away. "Alec? ALEC???" I shook his shoulder violently, and he woke up with a cough. "Jesus! Thank God...." I said, holding him against me, hoping to give him some warmth. I wiped his nose for him and told him to blow, giving him a half piece of bread to keep his strength up. Then we got on our feet, and started walking again.
Except, this time I knew where I was going. I was desperate. And a little help would be better than nothing. If it meant giving this Trevor guy a few winks and a smile...then I'll do it. I just want Alec to get better. I just want to make it a few more days. How hard can it be?
We made our way out to the Buckingham Fountain area, with me carrying a half conscious Alec in my arms. The waters were lit up with their usual brilliance of night time colors, the cool spray actually feeling a bit soothing, even after the frigid body temperatures Alec and I had been experiencing lately. Alec raised a hand up to feel the light misting with his fingers, amazed at what was going on. There were a lot of people milling around the area, each doing their own thing. Some buying glow sticks and necklaces, some grabbing a slice of pizza, others just taking photographs. I worried for a moment that I might be too late. That 9 o'clock had long passed while I was sleeping and that Trevor might be gone. But after ten minutes of wandering from one side of the fountain to the other, I caught sight of his light blond hair, standing right at the base of the fountain, with two other boys sitting right on the edge in front of him.
I can't quite explain why...but I felt a sudden 'sink' in my emotions when I saw him talking to other boys. Cute boys on top of it. They looked a lot alike, with cinnamon brown hair and light brown eyes. Before I made my approach, I began to wonder if Trevor was just some playboy, feeding every cute boy that he saw the same old lines. Making the same empty promises. I couldn't explain the pinch of it. It's not like I was in love with him or anything. But I have to admit...I didn't recognize my own fledgling infatuation with Trevor until the very moment that I saw him sharing that alluring, albeit wicked, smile with someone else.
I stumbled forward a bit, and put Alec down to walk on his own so my worn out arms could get a quick rest. The other two boys noticed me first, as Trevor had his back to me at the time, and they gave him a grin to let him know that I was there.
Trevor turned around, and with a smirk, he said, "Taryn. I wish that I could say I was surprised...but I think 'pleasantly reassured' would be a more appropriate response."
"Hi, Trevor...." Alec said weakly, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
"Hi there, little one. Has your big brother been taking care of you?" Trevor smiled.
"Taryn called me a 'baby'..." Alec pouted.
"Awwww, well that's not very nice. Is it?" Trevor laughed. Then he turned to me and said, "I take it that the streets haven't been too kind to you lately."
I didn't want to give Trevor the satisfaction of thinking that I couldn't make it on my own....but...my common sense told me not to look a gift horse in the mouth. So I humbled what was left of my male pride and shook my head in response.
I said, "Alec isn't feeling well. I want to wait the last few day out and get him some help, but....he got sick so fast, and it's only getting worse...."
I saw the other two boys smile up at Trevor, and one of them said, "What's this, Trevor? Strike three?" The older one giggled. By 'older', I mean only a few months to a year. But I could tell.
"Yeah..." The younger one giggled. "...At least you don't have to worry about Rain cutting you up over this one."
Trevor pushed the younger back a bit, nearly having him topple back into the fountain before his friend helped to steady him. Then Trevor said to me, "Taryn...this is Sean, and this is Milo. I'd be willing to call them friends if they ever knew when to shut up." the shared a laugh, but as Alec began to cough and gag again, holding his tummy as he bent over in pain, Trevor said, "Hey...you'd better get this boy some medicine and a decent place to rest his head. He shouldn't be out here like this."
Bashfully, I said, "I was..kind of hoping that you could help me out with that." Trevor raised an eyebrow. It was almost like he KNEW how much of a screwed up position I was in, and I could already see his wheels turning as to how to best take advantage of it. "That's what you said, right?" I reminded him. "If I needed help....you'd help me?"
Trevor thought about it for a moment, and then said, "So...it looks like I'm not so scary after all, huh?" He turned to Sean and Milo and said, "What do you guys think? I mean, Taryn's been out on these streets for, what....four days now? He might be able to make it on his own, don't you think?"
Sean and Milo shared a grin. Then Sean, the older one, said, "Totally. I think he could make it, Trev. Of course, he's gonna have to find himself a stable place to stay. A place where he can rest his head and not worry about anybody giving him the business end of a billy club."
Milo said, "Yeah, and you're gonna have to get yourself a weapon. A knife or a pipe or something. If you can get yourself a gun...even better."
"A GUN???" I said.
"Well, sure..." Sean told me. "You've got to protect yourself out here. If you're gonna be on your own, you've gotta get yourself a weapon. Especially if you decide to start turning tricks for money."
Was this a joke? If it was, all three of them seemed to be in on it. I told them, "I'm...I'm not doing that. I'm NEVER doing that...."
They giggled to themselves. Sean said, "Sure, sure. That's what they all say. At first. But let me tell you...when you get hungry enough, and that frosty Chicago winter starts bearing down on you with temperatures cold enough to kill even the healthiest of people...you'll be surprised how inviting a warm bed and a blowjob from a stranger can be. You'll see. Trust us."
I didn't know if I should cover Alec's ears, or if what they were saying were just going over his head where he wouldn't be able to understand them anyway. But Milo told me, "Hey...you give them 15 minutes worth of sexual satisfaction, and you might get a place to stay, AND something to eat. You treat 'em right, get yourself some repeat customers...you might even make yourself some nice little pocket change on a regular basis. Sky's the limit once you get something like that going." Sean and Milo shared a secretive laugh with one another. I was almost certain that I was the butt of a joke here. Like they were just...helping Trevor make a sucker out of me or something.
But what really caught me off guard was when Trevor said, "I don't know, you guys. I mean, Taryn is really REALLY cute. He might pull in a lot of money from the perverts in this town. They'd be climbing all over one another trying to get a taste of him. He's just plain 'pretty'. Pretty....just like a little 'China Doll'....."
The three boys snickered together at the thought of it. But as I clearly took an instant offense to the comment, I took Alec by the hand, and I started to back away from them. "This was a mistake. Just...forget it, ok? We can make it on our own."
"Yeah, you're doing great so far." Milo teased.
"It's only for a few more days..."
Trevor said, "Every kid that runs away from home thinks that it's only gonna be for a few more days. They treat it like some big adventure that's going to somehow fix the problems that they have at home. But they won't. In fact, they're only going to get infinitely worse from here. And then....much sooner than later...they'll find themselves right back here on the streets with the rest of us. Just trying to make it 'a few days more'." He looked me in the eye and said, "What then, cutie pie?"
"I can figure out some way to make it." I told them.
"How?" Sean asked.
"I'll...I'll beg for change."
"Good for a snack or two, but you'll use up what little money you get just as fast as you get it. Plus you've got the munchkin here to worry about. So you'll burn through it twice as fast." Sean said.
Milo added, "A lot of places downtown won't take all your change for purchases either. They'll tell ya to get lost if you come in with a pocket full of loose coin."
Thinking for a second, I said, "I'll get a job."
They laughed at me over that one. "Doing what, exactly?" Sean giggled. "No experience, no work permit, no driver's license, no phone number, no home address? Good luck with that."
Trevor just smiled as my every idea got shot down, one by one. But I tried to stay confident. "I can just go and stay at a shelter, then. They're all over the place. One of them will make room for me and Alec..."
Milo shook his head. "Hmmm, unh unh. Not such a good idea."
"You're not 18, that's why not. You step one foot into a shelter around here, and the first thing they're gonna do is run your picture and all of your info through the system. Chances are, they'll end up dragging you right back to the place you were running away from in the first place. Most kids your age don't last 24 hours in one of those places."
Sean said, "We've gotta look out for ourselves out here, Taryn. That's all there is to it. You're an official 'missing person' now. Your days of asking for 'help' are over as far as regular society is concerned." Sean and Milo traded a grin with Trevor, and Sean said, "You might as well just stick with us. Unless you actually want to be forced to go back home. It's up to you."
I didn't like feeling like I was being trapped into this. From their secretive looks alone, it was almost as if Trevor had them helping him to manipulate me into staying. But even as my defenses went up, Trevor seemed to take a slightly different tone with me. He moved closer, putting an arm over my shoulder and leading me away from the others with a tender squeeze. "Come on, Taryn...we're just messing with your head. You know that, right? Don't be so sensitive. I promised you help, and I'll give you help. Come with me tonight, and I'll personally see to it that you get through the next few days unscathed. Ok?" He said, those deceptively charming good looks practically knocking me over with their brazen appeal. "Don't you want some place warm to sleep tonight? Huh? Maybe some blankets? A hot shower? I know where you can get some peace of mind. All you've gotta do is ask me." Trevor said. He saw my hesitation, and added, "Seriously, Taryn....I like you, ok? Nothing would make me happier than having you spend some quality time with me tonight. Besides, Alec isn't looking too good right now. If nothing else, think about his well being." I gave Trevor a suspicious look, but I could already feel the hopelessness of the situation tearing my cautious instincts apart. Trevor said, "Come on, dude....am I really all that bad?"
I felt Alec grab onto my leg and mash his face into my hip as his coughs got worse, and the most helpless whine came soaring out of the back of his scratchy throat. So...since I didn't have much of a choice...I said, "Ok. I'll do it."
Sean and Milo snickered again to themselves at my helpless surrender, but Trevor gave them a signal to hush up. Trevor said, "Ok, you'll do it? Well that doesn't sound very 'friendly' to me."
So, I lowered my eyes....and after a brief pause, I asked, "Trevor....can you please help us?" It was humiliating, but it had to be done. I know what my father always taught me about hesitation...but I just wanted to get this over with. A few more days, and I can put this all behind me. For right now, though...I had to tell Trevor what he wanted to hear.
"Sweet." Trevor smiled, obviously pleased. "First things first. I know a place where you and Alec can get cleaned up. There's an old church just West of here. After that...I'll take you to meet a few close friends of mine."
I wasn't sure what it was that I was feeling at that moment...but I got a definite chill when Trevor added...
"I'm sure once you meet the others...you'll want to stay a while. Maybe even forever. Who knows, right?"