Autumn days were typical; crisp with a brisk breeze that nipped cheeks and turned fingertips numb. However, this year, it was three weeks late due to a stubborn summer that had kept Jack Frost tardy in his wintry schedule. Even though the city was dirty and unsavory, the trees that grew unhindered along the sidewalks boldly declared to the world that they, too, (however brief this year) held the honor of competing with the sunsets. Reds, oranges and golds blazed as leaves that were rapidly going from tender to rigid stubbornly clung to the highest branches, and the streets and the suburban yards were littered with a royal carpet of their beauty.
Within the city, the ever changing colors of graffiti marred the alley sides of stores and abandoned buildings. Litter was tossed about with the chilly wind as people walked by without offering a second glance to a pair of huddled forms sitting on the ground in the mouth of an alley. The boys were too preoccupied to notice being ignored while they shared body warmth and picked through last week's Sunday paper.
Their routine was mundane; rise before the sun broke the horizon so they could trek from their little camp by the creek into town, and while men and women busied themselves unloading deliveries from the backs of their trucks, the twins would pick through the dumpsters in search of a quick meal. Leftovers from fast food restaurants when Loren was able to squeeze into the small space in a fence surrounding the dumpsters was an easy choice of a meal. Their favorite spot was a chicken joint close to the edge of town, and the boys would often find their sustenance by chewing the scraps of meat from bones. They had learned many years ago to huddle out of sight so they could enjoy their meals in peace before the trash collectors came.
They were fraternal. Loren, who was five minutes older, was also five inches shorter than Jesse. Slender from years of doing without proper meals, graceful because they never spent time idle, and blessed with natural blond hair that was gifted from their mother. They had turned sixteen late in the summer, and had celebrated by using their meager funds to buy each other a cupcake at the local bakery.
“How much money do you have?” Jesse murmured. They braced themselves against a gust of wind and then scooted closer together. “Wouldn’t be so cold if it hadn’t rained last night…”
“I know,” Loren said. “I think I have three bucks.”
“Good, here’s a coupon for some hotdogs. Two packs for five. We can eat on that for a while.” It wasn’t pretty, but with careful fingers, Jesse slowly tore the coupon away.
Together, they sat in contemplative silence as the day grew drearier and colder. So long, autumn. It was nice to have you while you lasted. Loren tilted his face, both boys sharing the sweetness and loveliness of youth, to gaze up to his brother. “What would I do without you, Jess?”
“Wither away and die.”
“Don’t think bad thoughts. If you think them, they come.”
Huddling into himself, Loren tucked his hands into the large sleeves of his denim jacket. It was thread bare and he had patched it in several places, but it was his. It didn’t matter to him that he had found it discarded in a back lot. It must have belonged to someone who had been evicted and their belongings cast upon their former front stoop. After the good stuff was picked through, the “negotiables,” as the boys called it, were cast aside.
“C’mon, Twin,” Jesse said as he rose suddenly.
“Where we going?”
“Gonna walk that gloom right off your face. C’mon.”
“Ah, Jess, I’m freezin’, can’t I just sit here for a little while longer?”
“No. C’mon before someone pulls in and runs you over. Then you’d be sorry you didn’t follow me out.”
Loren rose from the ground dusting off the back of his pants as he did, and together, they walked in silence for a while.
A shrill wolf whistle cut through his daydream and caused Loren to jump before turning his face to the left. He narrowed his storm gray eyes into the semblance of a glare.
“Sorry about that, Loren! When you gonna cut all that hair off? I thought you were a pretty girl!” the aging man called from his stoop, knowing full well who he was harassing. Loren was getting tired of the now not so subtle hints at a haircut. “Where you at without Twin?”
Loren paused, swayed in place for a moment, and then made the decision to be sociable. “Hey, Hunch. Jesse’ll be around soon,” he said.
A local fixture around the area, Hunch was a grizzled familiar face that was pushing sixty. Once upon a time, he was known as Bruce, but a savage beating over whether or not he happened to be cheating during a poker game one night had left him clinging to life. Now, with his deformed left shoulder and bad limp, some of the locals called him Hunchback. He was usually the go-to guy when it came to digging up gossip, or any valuable information he would readily give. For a price. Anything on the streets was for a price. He was kind enough, though, if not a little eccentric. He was never accused for wanting to cause much trouble and absolutely not willing to invite it onto his steps. Loren had heard once that before his appetite for prescription pills and other heady narcotics had cost him his home and family, he had almost graduated medical school. But that was before he and Jesse were born.
“Say, you wanna earn a candy bar?”
“What do you need?”
“Got somebody that owes me twenty bucks. You bring that to me, and I’ll give you and your brother both a candy bar.”
“You trust me to get money for you?” Loren asked with a skeptical smile.
“Aw, come on, now, everyone trust you two. You the angels around here.”
“Why don’t you go and get it yourself?”
Hunch scoffed softly as he sank down onto the top step. “It all the way across town and I’m getting too old to chase that sucker down. He see two on one and he’ll cough it up, and you know… my arm,” he whined pitiably.
“So, there’s a chance that I might end up in a fight?”
“Ain’t it worth a candy bar?”
Loren sighed softly and leaned his back against the damp metal of a lamp post. The broken bulb above his head hadn’t been changed in months. Bothering with it in this part of town would be futile, anyway.
“I don’t know… I’ll talk to Jess, see what he thinks.”
“Well, don’t keep me waitin’, I need that money and don’t have time for you two to make up your pretty blond heads.” Hunch rose and made great pretense of turning towards his door.
“Alright, alright, what’s the guy’s name and where do we go?”
The twisted old man smiled, showing a few missing gaps in his teeth. “Atta boy. Guy new ‘round here. Name Jeremy. Bushy hair, big scruffy beard, walks with a limp.” This time there was no pretense as he twisted the old brass knob and pushed the door open.
“Wait!” Loren called. “First, how big of a candy bar are we talking? You’re not going to pull that fun-sized crap on us again, are you?”
“Nah, nah, got two big ones, right here.” Digging into his coat pocket, he pulled out the large bars, waving them slowly side to side. Storm gray eyes tracked the movement hungrily.
“Alright, so, big guy, little guy?”
“He about average size. That all I know about him. For now. You find him over by that plant that got blown up two year ago. Wearin’ camo, and has a matchin’ backpack. Name Jeremy. Don’t forget that.”
“Why do I get the feeling that you aren’t too lazy to do it yourself, you’re just wanting to get Intel without the consequences?”
“That means you been payin’ attention,” he said as he pushed the door further inward, exposing the dark aging maw of the old foyer. “Don’t keep me waitin’!”
“You’re going to kill me,” Loren said, keeping his eyes on the dark brown door that snapped shut with a decided click.
“Let me guess, we have an errand, yeah?”
“What’s he paying us?”
“Candy bar a piece.”
“Did you see them?”
“Yeah, I made sure I did. After the last time he burnt us with those fun sized bars for doing him a solid, I wasn’t going to fall for it again.”
“And people say blonds are dumb,” Jesse said with a smirk as they began to walk down the sidewalk. “Where we going?”
“That old plant that blew up. He said a guy named Jeremy owed him twenty bucks.”
Jesse whistled. “Four fins, man… I can’t remember the last time we had that much money. So, two on one?”
“I guess so,” Loren shrugged one shoulder as they paused at a crosswalk. “You know it’ll be getting dark by the time we get there.”
“I know,” Jesse sighed.
“Man… there’s a reason nobody comes here,” Loren grunted as he wove his body through the heavy strands of barbed wire that surrounded the ruins of the old plant. “They refuse to spend the money to tear it down, but they’ll put up this crap that will just cause…” he hissed in pain as the razor sharp edge of a barb snagged the arm of his jacket and bit into his flesh. “Someone to get hurt,” he finished softly.
“Yeah, fence just bit me.”
“Don’t jar it too much; I’m comin’ in after you,” Jesse said as he lifted the top strand of wire higher so he could step through.
“Alright,” Loren spoke, keeping his voice low as the two cast their eyes about the area. Most of the walls had fallen to crumbled heaps while large chunks of concrete littered the area. Several patches of broken earth sprouted wilting weeds that had grown dense. “Not many places to hide. Let’s get this done so we can be on our way.”
“I feel like we’re in a video game, completing missions to get the rewards,” Jesse said. Rocks crunched under their ratty sneakers as they began to spread out and comb the area. “What if he’s not here?”
“Then we don’t complete our mission and collect the reward,” Loren answered as he tilted his head. He studied a spot of shadow beneath a large column that was spared from the explosion.
“Don’t they say that this place is haunted?” Jesse commented as he staggered over a cinder block buried within the weeds. He pinwheeled his arms to regain his balance, and continued on.
“I believe I’ve heard some stories,” Loren agreed as he angled his path to join Jesse. “But I don’t know if it’s true or not.”
They fell into silence as they searched the grounds, picking their way carefully over terrain that was now falling traitorous as the evening began to descend. Shadows hid uneven ground that itched to twist an ankle.
“Is that something?” Loren finally spoke up. He pointed to their left, unsure of the lump against the building amidst tall grass.
“Stay here,” Jesse said. He began to walk forward, trying to keep his steps as quiet as he could. The last thing they needed was to run from a strung out drug addict who had been woken up in a case of mistaken identity. Jesse couldn’t decide which was more dangerous; the addict or the ground.
Loren stooped down, gripping a chunk of cinder block and edging behind his brother. He kept distance, as Jesse had instructed, and waited as his heart raced while his twin cautiously approached the man-shaped object nearly hidden in the heavy gloaming. His tension grew as Jesse leaned down, and just as quickly, he relaxed as his brother straightened up. “No,” he called.
“He must not be here.”
“Man, I hope Hunch doesn’t think we stole his money…”
“Now why would he think that?” a raggedy voice questioned in Loren’s ear. Half a heartbeat later, he could feel the hungry steel of a razor sharp blade pressed into the tender flesh of his neck. Right against his carotid. A lump formed in the smaller boys’ throat and his eyes grew wide in alarm. Jesse paused, his breath coming out in stuttering pants of terror.
“B-because… we th-thought…” Licking his lips, Loren tried to force his frightened nerves to stop shaking. Standing out in the middle of an open courtyard, he couldn’t believe that this stranger had snuck up upon him like a ghost. He never made a sound. When the blade pressed more firmly against his neck, he closed his eyes. “We’re looking for Jeremy,” he whispered.
“Weapon. Drop it,” the man demanded and Loren’s fingers relaxed. The chunk of cinder fell to the ground with a thud and rolled against his sneaker. For a moment, Loren wasn’t sure whether or not he would retain bladder control. The man lifted his head and grunted at Jesse. “You. Stay where you are,” he ordered in a voice that sounded as if it hadn’t had much use in the past year. Jesse halted and slowly lifted his hands to show his submission.
“Pl-please… sir… we mean you no harm,” Loren breathed. “Hunch sent us to collect his debt…”
“Who’re you two?”
“No one to cause you any grief,” Jesse said. Instinctively, he took a step forward to continue to engage the man in conversation, but when the fear on his twin’s face began to meld into pain, he paused and put his hands up. A thin line of blood slowly trickled along the pale flesh.
“Who’s to say that,” the man grunted rhetorically as his free hand began to feel through Loren’s pockets. He removed a small buck knife and slipped it into his own as his near-feral eyes pinned Jesse with a look of mistrust. The hand continued its eager quest through Loren’s pockets, making sure the youth was free from weapons before he pointed his free hand at Jesse again, grunting and gesturing for him to come closer. When the youth hesitated, he snapped his fingers at him and pointed to the ground by Loren’s feet.
“You’re new here,” Jesse observed as he picked his way carefully towards the stranger. His brown eyes were shielded and hard, but he dared not break eye contact. If this man killed Loren, Jesse knew that he himself would end up dying as well. With nothing left to live for, he would give this crazy man the pleasure of the finest beating he had ever received in his life.
“New,” the man grunted softly as he pulled the few crumbled bills out of Loren’s pocket. He looked at them, and much to the smaller twin’s surprise, crammed them back into the pocket he found them.
“Sir… if you’re not going to steal my money,” Loren spoke. “Then that means you don’t intend to kill me.”
“Maybe… maybe,” Jeremy grunted. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder, and then began to step backwards, his hold on Loren firm. The knife didn’t quiver against the slender neck as they traversed the dangerous terrain. “Come,” he told Jesse, and Jesse obeyed, walking with them.
“What are you planning to do?” Jesse asked as a new fear caused the bile to turn over in his stomach. “You can kill us, but we’re not going to let you rape us.”
“No,” the gruff voice hissed in Loren’s ear. “Not that. Come.” Without letting Loren go, Jeremy continued to back away until he reached a small mound. He released Loren, pushing him forward and slowly sheathing his weapon while he pinned the two with wild eyes. Bending down, and not taking them out of his sight, Jeremy reached out into the shadows of the concrete mound, blinding fishing within the makeshift cave. They could hear items rattling together as the feral stranger pulled a wadded blanket out. They watched the man as he awkwardly squatted down further and then rooted through his items before rising and thrusting his arm out. A crumpled wad of bills was presented to them.
“All here. Here.” He shoved his fist at the boys.
Loren, too numb in shock to do more than hold his neck, made no effort to stop his brother as he moved to get the money. Jesse was angry, beyond angry, Loren could tell by the stiff way he moved and his overly rigid posture, as if his spine had been replaced with a two by four. The bills made a soft crumpling sound as Jesse snatched them out of Jeremy’s hand, and then he made a point of counting out the money in front of him. “All here,” Jesse said as he turned away. “Let’s go.”
Lowering his hand from his neck, Loren studied the thin wet moisture on his fingers, blood that was still trickling stubbornly and staining the neck of his shirt. It cooled immediately in the brisk night air. The knife had been razor sharp and he couldn’t help but to wonder how quickly Jeremy could have beheaded him. What would that have felt like? The sharp edge of that honed blade biting into skin and muscle as his head was suddenly (violently) yanked back. Would the sinew snap like a rubber band once it was dissected? How badly would it hurt when he reached bone?
How fast would the spray of his arterial blood cool as it splattered down his chest in the frigid night? He began to shake in uncontrollable spasms and wordlessly, he held his hand out to Jesse to show him his bloody fingertips.
“Let’s go,” Jesse snapped as he lunged forward, grasping his twin by the wrist and yanking him further away from the stranger. Without a second glance, he began to run. At first, he had to pull Loren behind him, but once the older youth’s brain decided to kick in, they ran together, and somehow, they managed not to trip over the dangerous ground of the old factory ruins.
Hunch never opened his door until the sun had fully risen. Not that the boys could blame him; the large turn of the century row house was his fortress against the rest of the world in the vulnerability of night. What rare glimpses they had seen of the inside reminded them of a hoarder’s museum, full of cluttered chaos that somehow held a semblance of order. The previous tenants had been evicted decades ago, and never one to let opportunity pass him by; Hunch had squatted until he became the legal owner. He even had electricity and occasional running water. Or so they had heard.
“You know, it would be nice if he could at least let us in,” Jesse said bitterly. His teeth chattered as he hugged his arms tight to his body. “Unless every room in that old dump is piled high with junk.”
“Knowin’ Hunch, he’s probably got paranoia about letting anyone in. You let one person stay with you, and suddenly the rest of the city thinks you owe them free room and board,” Loren answered.
“You might be right,” Jesse agreed. He pulled to a halt beneath a stuttering streetlamp and gripped his brother’s arm, swinging him around gently. “Let me see your neck.”
Obediently, Loren opened the front of his coat and tilted his head to the left. Jesse hissed softly. “You’re still bleedin’, Lo.”
“No doubt. Good thing he didn’t take your head clean off.”
“I was standing there, after he put the knife away, showing you the blood on my hand and all I could think about was what that would feel like. We’ve grown up on these streets and I don’t think we’ve ever been in that kind of danger.”
Jesse nodded thoughtfully as he gently closed Loren’s jacket. “It was the way he snuck up on us. We never saw him comin’.”
“Never saw him comin’,” Loren agreed as he buttoned the only three buttons of the thin jacket and stuffed his hands into the pockets. “Never heard him comin’ either.”
“People aren’t like that naturally, to get that sneaky-quiet, you gotta be trained,” Jesse observed as they began to walk again. “And he put your money back.”
“He put it back, but he didn’t return my knife,” Loren said. “I want that back.”
Jesse gripped his twin’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “I’ll find you another one; I don’t want to mess with that guy again.”
Loren frowned down at the sidewalk as it slowly passed beneath their feet. “Yeah, but you got me that one…”
The hand on his shoulder slipped down to wind around his waist in a loose hug. “I’ll get ya another one, I promise, you sentimental twit.”
With nothing else left to say, the boys trekked the long journey back to the heart of the city, keeping to the shadows when they could. Halfway along the trip, they made the decision to sit on Hunch’s front porch, even though they knew the bitter cold of the concrete steps would bite through the thin material of their jeans. In the wee hours of the morning they climbed the stairs and then settled in against the old front door where they found a semblance of slumber, slouched against each other as frost formed over the landscape. As the sun broke the horizon, the smell of bacon and eggs cooking from one of the legally occupied row houses stirred them.
Bellies growled in unison as heads began to stir. Jesse sat up first, pushing Loren into a sitting position before they both let out grand yawns and stretched their stiff arms to the sky. They wouldn’t be able to enjoy the meal being prepared that smelled so heavenly, but at least they had the candy bars to look forward to.
“It’s time enough,” Jesse said as he rose up and turned. He began to pound on the door with the side of his fist, keeping it light however to keep from drawing too much attention to themselves in the early hours of the new day. Hunch, being paranoid as Loren had noted, would surly hear the noise and come quickly. Especially if there was his money to be returned. They weren’t disappointed when the front door eased open a crack.
“You’re here,” the older man’s voice croaked out. He sounded pleased enough as the door opened up just a tiny bit more. “Did you get the money? Did you bring it?”
Jesse dug into his front right pocket, pulling out the bills that he had smoothed and folded over. Counting them out, three fives and five ones, he waited patiently for the old familiar face to appear.
“That’s good, that’s good,” the old man exclaimed quietly with his unique and exuberant type of enthusiasm. “Very good boys, very good.” As he reached out to take the money Jesse spoke up as he pulled his own hand back and held it up. Out of reach.
“Loren got hurt, that guy was dangerous.”
“Dangerous, yes, yes he was. You two did a fine job.”
“Loren got hurt,” Jesse said. Hunch’s eyes grew distant, and then concerned.
“Come on in, but be quick about it! Don’t dawdle, there are things out there that’ll skin us alive and chew on the bones,” he muttered as he closed the door to unhook the chain, and then swung it open just enough for the boys to scramble inside. Loren couldn’t contain the drop jawed look of disbelief as he rose on numb legs. Hunch just opened his door to them? Unbelievable! Maybe if getting hurt was the key to getting good shelter in the city, he’d have to plan a few amateur stunts in the future.
“Come, come, make haste,” Hunch urged as Jesse slipped into the house. Remembering how to stand, Loren got up and headed in after his brother, mentally high-fiving the tall blond over this impressive feat. The door closed behind them with a decided snap and then the chains and bolts began to be put back into place.
“No funny stuff, right?” Hunch said as he continued to fortify the door. “I trust you two; knew your mother. I know you’re good boys. Angels of the streets.”
“No worries,” Jesse said as he openly looked around. “You can trust us.”
“Wow,” Loren breathed as he gazed down the hall. For all appearances of the outside, the house looked like a dilapidated dump, but inside… inside was a whole new story. Granted there were tall stacks of books that lined the hallway of the foyer that gave the impression of a well-organized mess, but beyond that, everything seemed to scream the word grand. It was the only thing that came to mind if the boys had to describe what they were seeing. Grand and golden, because of all that woodwork that seemed to warm the place like its own personal sun.
Walls, where the wall paper should have been cracked, torn or missing, was pristine and covered with a replicated antique print. The floors were immaculate and real hardwood, not the cheap stuff warehouse type chains liked to sell at an over inflated price. There were heavy black out curtains over the windows, to keep the light from shining from within at night and everywhere they boys looked, not a speck of dust rested.
“You’ve got flowers,” Loren mused as he stepped into a sitting room. Wave Begonias hung from their appointed hooks in the ceiling, their deep green leaves feathering down in an exotic cascade.
“Yes, yes,” Hunch agreed as he came in with the boys. “They’ll bloom soon, early spring, always early.” He moved to Loren and tapped his own temple. “It’s because I talk to them, you see. I talk to them and they bloom for me.” He cut his hazy eyes down. “Shoes! Take your shoes off! You can’t have your shoes on on my clean floor. Were you two raised in a barn?”
“No,” Jesse said dryly as he toed his sneakers off. “That would have been an improvement over the car we lived in.” He handed the money over to the older man, who in turn, presented each bare footed boy with a large candy bar. They tore into them immediately.
“Let me see your boo boo,” Hunch said as he urged Loren to sit on a stool at the kitchen island. Like the rest of the house, the kitchen was impressive, full of antique appliances that still worked. Loren eased down as Jesse leaned against the sink and watched them attentively.
“Razor sharp that was,” Hunch breathed as he examined the cut. “Razor sharp, could have taken your head clean off.” He lifted his eyes to Loren, and then to his twin. “You two did me a solid, a real heavy solid, I won’t forget that. I won’t forget it. Just do me a big favor.”
“What is it?” Jesse asked.
“Tell no one of what you see here. You understand, you know.”
“We know,” Loren agreed. “And don’t worry, we won’t take advantage of the secret, will we, Jess?”
“Nope,” Jesse said slowly. He lifted a brow as the bottle of rubbing alcohol was produced from an old leather bag.
“It’s a pretty house, Hunch, but why keep everyone out?” Loren asked curiously. In the darkness of a hallway just off the kitchen a clock whirred and clicked before a little coo coo bird, unseen, chimed out the early morning hour.
“Because… because,” the old almost doctor muttered as he rummaged around in his bag. “Best to keep things secret. What people don’t know, they don’t want. What they don’t want, they don’t break in and steal.”
“But aren’t you worried about rumors getting out about what could be in here?” Jesse asked.
“Yes,” came the distracted answer. “That’s why I keep the house bad outside, clean inside. Make it look too ugly to come in.”
The twins exchanged a glance and then turned their eyes back to Hunch. No use telling him that that wasn’t something that really mattered.
“You boys keep my secret, don’t say a word. Promise?”
“Promise,” Jesse said.
“We promise,” Loren agreed.
“Good. Now, this might sting,” Hunch warned before applying a cotton swab full of the clear fire to the injury on Loren’s neck.
They didn’t stay long, but for their heroic efforts (as Hunch had muttered a few times while he applied antibiotic ointment to the cut on Loren’s neck) they received yet another candy bar. He made them promise again, and then once again, not to tell anyone of what they saw. The boys promised heartily that Hunch’s fine home would be kept mum before they ventured back out into the day.
“I can’t believe you did that,” Loren said in awe as he and his twin shuffled along the sidewalk.
Jesse, tossing his head back as a grin tugged his full lips only stuffed his hands into his pockets with an air of aloofness before he shrugged. “You were the one with the boo-boo,” he said, and then openly laughed. Loren scoffed at him in return before punching him lightly in the bicep.
“Let’s get something else to eat and then go home. I’m beat, I’m freezing, and I’m stiff and sore from our early morning nap on those steps.”
“I hear ya,” Jesse agreed softly.
“Chicken?” Loren asked hopefully.
“Probably too late for that now, the trash trucks are already on the prowl. We’ll stake out the diner and wait to see what goodies they toss out.”
“Alright,” Loren agreed quietly. “Maybe we can panhandle a little bit so we can have a hot meal? Whoever that was cooking breakfast next door, they sure did my stomach wrong. I was eating that candy bar, but all I could taste was bacon and eggs. I’d love to have a real breakfast.”
Jesse lifted his shoulders up high, and then lowered them as he exhaled a soft sigh. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he agreed. They paused at an empty side street and quickly crossed it before pausing in front of a little boutique that sold wedding supplies. Both boys looked around as the bright morning sun tried to blot out their vision with its brilliance. Today was going to be stunning, albeit crisp. Of that there was no doubt. However, not many people were out and about at the hour because the morning rush hour was still an hour away.
“Slim pickin’s,” Jesse muttered. “And it’s too cold to sit. We need to find a cup to hold our cash.”
“Stay here with your palm out,” Loren said. “I’ll go find us something.”
Jesse nodded and huddled deeper within his coat.
It took nearly fifteen minutes of searching, but Loren returned with a small tin can. The label had rubbed off between one rain or the other, but it was fine to rattle some change within. Satisfied that they might be able to buy a hot breakfast, they turned and began to walk along the street once again.
The twins decided to sit on a narrow rock ledge that held in a bristly hedge that decorated the front of a small insurance office. The smaller they made themselves as they perched and huddled together like two cold little parakeets, the more likely people would take pity upon them. The sun rose higher, bathing their faces in warm light as the chill of the day took bitter root. They squinted their eyes, murmuring their gratitude to the kind souls who would plink a bit of change into their offered cup. Finally, they lowered their heads, appearing as if feeling shame for their deed, but that wasn’t the case. The sun was just too powerful as it got up above the three and four story buildings near the town square.
Suddenly there was a heavy plink within the can which in turn caused Jesse, who was nearly dozing, to let out a sharp gasp of surprise tendered with frustration. The can tried to slip from his fingers at the newly added weight and he pulled it quickly towards his chest while making sure no prankster had plunked a rock within the can to be funny. He felt the hairs along his arms bristle as a cold finger of fear caressed his spine. It was Loren’s pocket knife. He turned his head quickly to inform his brother, but saw that Loren was already well aware of what had been returned to him. He sat with his head tilted far back, his storm gray eyes wide in his face and his mouth slack in shock. He was frozen in fear as he stared at Jeremy.
Jeremy stared back at the boys, his eyes hard yet unreadable. “That was yours,” he finally said, gesturing awkwardly with one arm towards the cup.
Jesse tried to look at Loren, but found that he couldn’t pull his gaze away from the tall scruffy man for more than a few seconds; lest the feral man decided to pounce upon them and tear their throats out with his teeth.
Jeremy shifted, as if the weight of his army-issued backpack with its burden of all the worldly goods he owned were too much of an encumbrance on his shoulders. “Thank you… is usually what you say,” he spoke hesitantly. His voice was still full of gravel from long stretches of unuse.
“How did you find us?” Jesse whispered.
Casting his eyes down along the street, Jeremy almost seemed chagrinned at the question. “I followed you,” he answered simply, still not meeting their eyes.
“Why?” Loren whispered. In his current state of shock, it was as loud as he could force his shaking voice.
The odd man shuffled again, the breeze ruffling through his bushy beard and dark, unkempt hair. “You’re kids.” His blue eyes darted about from building to building, doing everything in their power from landing on the boys fair faces. “You don’t hurt kids,” he finished simply.
Loren began to relax in degrees but Jesse wasn’t pleased. Sometimes he felt his older, smaller brother was a bit on the naïve side. Maybe too trusting of a world too eager to devour them alive. He still didn’t trust this man who had not only put a knife to his twin’s neck, but had also cut it, drawing blood. A moment of thought; where would he be in this world without Loren? He’d be alone. It was a fear that Loren often voiced.
“You don’t hurt kids,” Jeremey said. Maybe to himself, maybe to the boys, or simply to placate the hungry silence that began to stretch out uncomfortably among them.
“No,” Loren said gently and he could feel the silent groan of frustration coming from his brother. He turned to face Jesse, who was staring at him sternly; soft brown eyes glowing with an unspoken warning, but Loren only reached out and put his hand on Jesse’s arm. “We don’t hurt anyone,” he said. That was their credo. Nobody gets hurt.
“I sharpened it,” Jeremy said. He was still staring down the street as he gestured once again vaguely towards the cup held forgotten in Jesse’s numb fingers. “Dull as a rock…” Strength began to return to his words as his pipes began to loosen up. Warmth began to develop within it as it became smooth.
“Thank you,” Loren answered. “And thank you for bringing it back… it meant a lot to me.”
“Well,” Jeremy whispered and his body began to relax. The time for speaking to others was coming to an end and the obvious stress of being social began to increase. Instead of saying the rest of what he wanted to say he finally met the boy’s eyes for a brief moment, offered what could be passed as a smile, and ducked his head in a nod.
“Be seeing you,” Jesse said and the tone of his voice told him that they would simply be keeping an eye out, lest there be trouble from the man in the future. Jeremy understood the tone immediately, let out a soft grunt and lifted his hand as he began to walk away. After a moment, he paused and his left hand began to prowl into his front pocket. He turned and held out his hand, but kept his feet planted solidly.
“Take it,” he said and the unmistakable sound of paper money crinkling between his fingers and thumb reached the twins. They looked at each other doubtfully, and then back to Jeremy. “Take,” he said again and gestured to them with his outstretched hand.
“No,” Jesse said. “No way, we go to take that, and you’ll hurt us… or say we robbed you.”
Bending at the hips, Jeremy placed the crumpled bill onto the ground. With the breeze at his back, he released it from his fingers and watched as it skittered lazily towards the boys who were quick to pounce upon it when it reached them.
“Ten dollars,” Loren murmured in awe. “Ten whole dollars.” Lifting his head, he opened his mouth to apologize for their mistrust, but Jeremy was already walking away from them.
“You don’t hurt kids,” the man said with his hesitant tone before crossing a narrow side street and continuing on his way.
“Think he was trying to buy our forgiveness?” Loren asked as Jesse tucked the bill away in his right front pocket.
“Well he can keep buying, he ain’t getting it so easy,” Jesse answered as he counted out the scant change in the tin can. “I think a good hour or two and we get a real breakfast.”
Loren smiled as he sat back down on the narrow rock wall.