Chapter One: Angels and Tarantulas // A Day in the Life of a Slum-Dog.
Theo and Helen sat together at a white wooden table in a quaint, little winery. The hostess of the winery came to Theo and Helen with their order of the most expensive wine bottle immediately after they were brought to their table. The wine bottle was accompanied with a pair of Saint-Louis golden thistle cups that shone under the dim light of the emerald vintage lamp at the table.
Helen took everything in about Theo with a loving countenance as they sat across each other: his piercing green eyes, dashing looks, soft russet skin, protuberant muscles underneath his navy velvet blazer and floral print shirt, and his handsome smile—all of which immensely delighted Helen. The white scar on his right cheek surely wasn’t there the last time she saw him, so she only deduced that there was a story behind it.
Just as Helen gazed at him with hazel eyes full of admiration, so did Theo. He held one of her hands on the table, tracing his thumb over the back of her hand as he smiled coquettishly at her, causing the girl to blush. The last time Theo had seen Helen her hair was disheveled, and her clothes were tattered. Now she sat across him with her long black hair falling in elegant waves behind her back instead of it being a tousled mess. Instead of tattered clothes, she wore a pastel colored blouse tucked underneath a pleated skirt. Long ago her face was covered with patches of dirt and grime, now her beauteous visage was adorned with eye-liner, mascara, and red matte lipstick.
The winery was empty, save for them and the hostess. Love Song for a Vampire by Annie Lennox played distantly in the vinyl player at the entrance. The two lovers glowed under the dim-lighting of the establishment. Next to them was a window that over-looked a pond, which was home to a lone swan whose feathers sparkled under the silvery light of the full moon as if diamonds were embedded all over its body.
“Here we are once again, together,” Theo spoke first. It had certainly been a long night, just as any other night had been without Helen at his side.
“Yes, we are,” Helen spoke. She bit her lower lip, stopping it from trembling in utter contentment. She was nervous after not seeing Theo for quite some time. Her heart had been beating rapidly ever since she laid her eyes on him at the theatre where he performed a mere hour ago.
Theo gave the bottle of wine a quick glance before chuckling, “Who would have thought that two slum-dogs from across Colby Street would be drinking from a bottle of Romanee-Conti de Grand Cru in the future?”
Helen pushed her cup towards him, beckoning him to pop the bottle open and start serving the damn wine already. Theo took the signal and did as she wished.
“Colby Street,” she sighed reminiscently before she took a sip of the wine, “God, I’ve forgotten all about it.”
And so, with that said Theo and Helen drank from the bottle of Romanee-Conti de Grand Cru while recalling a time long past. The music from the vinyl player, the flipping of pages from the hostess’s book, the dim lights, and the sparkling lone swan in its glowing pond were discarded by Theo and Helen as they remembered their journey that started in Colby Street almost a decade ago.
Colby Street was and still is an infamous street in the city of Old Willow. The reason for this street’s fame is because it divided and still divides Old Willow into two parts: The Good Side and the Slums. The slums in Old Willow consists of a collection of ruins from the Second Civil War that were half reconstructed by the government of the United States until they were ultimately abandoned, so the poor had to finish the reconstruction themselves in their own manner.
The result of the reconstruction was crude for anyone who wasn’t accustomed to the evident extreme poverty that these people lived in; the slums were utterly dilapidated to say the least. The houses were shabby at best, being made from wood and metal whereas the many tall buildings that dotted the area were made from loose red brick, ready to tumble down with the next big earthquake. Its streets were dark with grime and rotten trash lying about. The trees that lined the sidewalks were barren—not even the crows on their worst day dared to perch themselves on those forsaken trees. Rarely any cars passed through the slums and neither did they cross the boundary that is Colby Street unless they were up to no good. As the morning sun began to rise in the horizon, prostitutes and transients headed back to whatever shelter they called home after a long night of survival in this ghastly concrete jungle. The air in this side of town was still and eerily quiet—all that one could hear, if they were lucky, at the break of dawn was the distant howl of a soft morning breeze and the rumble of life elsewhere.
Two children no older than eleven and ten came out of these slums like tarantulas crawling out from a black hole on the ground. But these children weren’t terrifying like tarantulas! On the contrary, they were almost like angels—pure and innocent. One child was a boy and the other child was a girl—their names were Hunter and Helen respectively. They were very beautiful, but no one noticed their beauty or innocence because of the shabby clothes they wore, their dirty faces, and the disheveled unkempt hair they had on the top of their heads.
Hunter was attired in a white shirt but because no matter how many times he washed it the dirt never came off and therefore the white shirt was now a brown shirt; his trousers had holes in the knee area but that wasn’t surprising at all since his trousers weren’t trousers anymore, but a collection of patches shaped and fitted like trousers. The only thing that he wore that was pleasing to the eye were his black shoes which looked moderately new—to him at least.
Meanwhile, Helen only wore a black dress with white lace at the hem that hung above her weathered black boots, which she had duct-taped together around her toes.
The two of them departed from the Slums, which was still enveloped in the darkness of night, with their elbows locked and their feet skipping quite happily. When they finally crossed Colby Street they were no longer swathed in darkness but were bathed in the warm rays of the rising sun, it was as if they had walked out of the Inferno and into Paradise. In some ways that was necessarily the case. The good side of Old Willow was radiant not only in light but in delight as well.
Domestic and public workers opened the doors and windows of their establishments. Smiling housewives walked the sidewalks with their smiling children, delivering them to Sunday school for the morning. Merchant ladies had already set up their shops, yelling out the names of the various organic fruits, cheeses, meat, fish, and other commodities they had for sale. The trees that lined the sidewalks were filled with birds chirping while cars filled the street—their engines emitting a blasted heat while some even shook with music. The streets were paved smoothly and not left unattended as they were in the Slums. The buildings ranged from tall white villas, charming apartments, and an occasional glittering skyscraper. In the distance, the town cathedral’s bell was tolling, signaling the initiation of the first morning mass which was only reserved for the city’s elite.
“Don’t you just love the sounds of Sunday morning!” exclaimed Helen joyously as she raised her two arms, spinning slowly and jubilantly with a smile on her lips. Her passersby, which were a group of posh elderly women attired in beautiful pastel sundresses and hats, scowled at the ragged girl. They were utterly disgusted at the sight of her.
Hunter wasn’t showing off his empty chili can as proudly as Helen was. He noticed the women grimace at Helen, so he cast an equally hateful look at them. Quickly the women went off their way when they received the boy’s disdainful scowl.
“Put your empty can away,” Hunter harshly whispered. He remembered that at one point in life he didn’t give a single damn about showing off his empty can. But now he was eleven and he noticed that the empty can was a magnetic force for scorn from those around. It seemed like a thief would have been praised while they, children who were only collecting alms with their cans, were being condemned with looks of aversion from the whole world.
“You shouldn’t be ashamed of your upbringing Hunter,” retorted Helen. She ceased her spinning; her smile had been ripped from her innocent countenance by Hunter’s brusque demand.
“It’s not that I’m ashamed,” which was a lie because Hunter was starting to hate himself for being so poor, “It’s just that I’m grown, and I’ve noticed that these are as despicable as roaches!” He felt like throwing his can to the ground, but due to his necessity of that can his hand gripped it even tighter.
Helen rolled her eyes because she knew that this was another one of Hunter’s many rants. They passed through many of the buildings that were golden in the sunlight until they reached their destination: The Cathedral’s steps. They heard the ongoing Mass from outside the two wooden double doors that was the entrance of the magnificent Cathedral. After two hours of choir singing, people whispering prayers, and finally more hymns, the doors opened to a flood of churchgoers that walked down the steps as hastily as possible.
Hunter and Helen weren’t the only ones from the other side of town that had rushed to the churchgoers. Other beggars and such raised their palms and cans towards the affluent congregation, hoping for at least a dollar or a dime to make them rich in their own world. Hunter and Helen had to struggle for their cans to be seen, after all they were the only children in the impoverished vagrant crowd. They pushed their way through the begging crowd until they saw their weekly benefactors. Luckily, Hunter and Helen had received enough alms, or so it seemed, by the time the parade of the fashionable society walked down the steps and dispersed throughout the plaza in front of them.
“Hopefully this guarantees us a meal tonight,” said Helen as she looked down into her can. It was no longer empty, but she was dubious over the amount that was her newfound wealth.
“Well I have about four dollars in total,” said Hunter. He then looked into Helen’s can. Since Helen was somewhat illiterate Hunter had to count the amount of money she had. Hunter avoided illiteracy because he spent many a winter’s night inside libraries which he would sneak into with a flashlight to read every book he could get his hands on. He taught himself to read solely by his resolve to climb society’s food chain. “You have two dollars.”
Helen’s face lit up in a smile again. “In total, we have six dollars! We spend two dollars on Rita and then the remaining amount we can buy a pie from the lady at the bakery. How about that for an idea?”
“I don’t know why we have to pay Rita for a place to live and eat. We’re children!” Hunter looked into his empty can, saddened. He was utterly displeased with the fact that he wasn’t saving up any money to leave town by the time he turned seventeen.
Helen shrugged before she went on her way towards the river that ran through the west end of the street.
A concrete bridge was built to connect the other street with Cathedral Street, but the banks of the riverbed were left untouched; there was no pavement or anything of that sort, so grass and weeds grew wildly on the bank as nature intended. Hunter followed Helen to the underneath of the bridge. This place was their primary home, whereas Ms. Rita’s place was their secondary home. There were chalk drawings on the wall and even written poetry. The drawings were made by Helen and the poetry was written by Hunter in his sloppy but impressive writing. Underneath the bridge, the smell of fresh water and moss was palpable the second one would go near it. Nonetheless, it was a smell that made Hunter and Helen feel right at home and content.
Hunter sat on his haunches in front of the decorated wall and removed a loose gray brick at the bottom. He set the brick to the side, revealing a compartment filled with books. These books of course were borrowed from the library and eventually he would return them once he knew the text from memory.
“So, tell me, teacher, what are we going to learn today?” asked Helen teasingly.
“Well does American History sound good?”
“Hmmm,” Helen didn’t feel like getting a history lesson today, “I know everything about yesterday and plus didn’t we do History two times this week?”
Hunter chuckled and stood up with his skinny arms folded across his chest. “And what did we go over the other day?”
“Fifty years ago, there was a war known as the Second Civil War. This time people didn’t fight over whether slavery was right or wrong. Instead, they fought over many different ideologies such as gun control, religious freedom, immigration, and protestation of police brutality. All these people with their ideas clashed in riots in major cities across the country. There was widespread looting and mass slaughter. The government, appalled by the behavior of these citizens, sent the army into these cities and neutralized everyone and in some cases, they had to kill them. This civil war lasted for an entire year. Afterwards, people went about with their lives as if brother wasn’t being pitted against brother a few days ago. All this bottled-up rage people had in them was gone. Society then began to rebuild itself.
“Ten years later the country had finally finished the Second Reconstruction and a new nation rose from the ashes. New ideas of romanticism and philosophy came forward. The economy even got better and now the nation is living in an era of complete prosperity. This new era is known as the Second Gilded Age and that’s the era we live in.”
Hunter was impressed by Helen’s great memory, even though she had repeated word for word what was written in the book. Nonetheless he applauded and nodded in astonishment. “Good job. But you forgot one detail in the footnotes: the poor became poorer and rich became richer.”
“That wasn’t in the footnotes,” said Helen with a crease in her forehead.
Behind them the sound of flats rustled against the concrete. They quickly turned, hoping it wasn’t the police. Why would the police have flats on instead of heavy boots? They would be imprisoned immediately if the police were to ever find them under the bridge with books stolen from the library. Luckily it was none other than a mere girl of their age. She was a pretty girl whose clothes were so fine they shined under the morning sun; she wore a baby blue dress with a white sunhat that had a black ribbon tied around the domed top. This girl looked at Helen and Hunter with wide eyes full of amazement. What was there to be astonished by two children who were the total opposite of her in every spectrum of reality?
“You can read?” the girl asked, utterly stunned.
“Yes, I can,” Hunter was the one to reply, “How may I help you?”
Helen rolled her eyes at the sound of Hunter’s pleasant voice, annoyed that he even spoke to such a girl. “Go on! There’s nothing to look here!” Helen strode forward, grasped the arms of the strange girl, and began pulling her away from their secret hideout.
Hunter rushed after them, but it was too late. What he feared had certainly happened and what more assurance could he have received than the screams and gasps that were heard above the hill.
Helen encountered the family of the girl as they were waiting for their daughter to appear out of the curious underneath of the bridge. Helen tensed when she set her sights on the glares that were being shot at her by the family. A woman who had the same eyes and facial features as the girl grabbed her daughter, taking her away from Helen’s hold.
“What did you do to my daughter!” the woman violently exclaimed to Helen.
“You snake!” Helen shouted at the girl, ignoring her mother altogether.
The troublesome girl shook her head with tears brimming in her eyes. “I didn’t mean to! I went down there just so I can see the shells and hopefully meet the angel who has been writing poetry on that wall.”
A second woman who stood behind the girl’s mother took notice of Hunter. She was plain with freckles across her nose; her burgundy hair was wrapped in a pony-tail and her red sundress was fitted around her shapely body. “That boy…he probably threatened poor Ana to comply with what he wanted by any means. What have you done to her?” She stepped forth and angrily slapped Hunter across the cheek, expecting to get an answer from him.
“He did nothing!” Helen cried aloud when the woman struck Hunter.
The man that had stood next to this cruel woman clad in red shook his head before he called out after her. “Constance, you didn’t have to do that for fucks sake. Ana is fine because if she wouldn’t be she would be crying bloody murder by now.”
“Julian is right,” assented the girl’s mother.
“Julian, Lisa…I think you may be correct in this matter.” Constance stepped away from Hunter but not without giving him a loathsome look as if she had known him, as if he had done a wrong towards her. They went off their way with Ana, who was looking back at Hunter and Helen, seemingly devastated by the turn of events.
“That bitch slapped you! Are you okay?” Helen turned towards Hunter, holding his stricken cheek in her right hand.
Hunter shook her soothing hand away with a chuckle. “It’s fine. I’ve had worse at the hands of Rita.”
Helen shrugged. She knew Hunter had made a good point. “But that lady had no right to hit you like that. Ugh, if only I was older, I would have returned her slap and knocked her to the ground and pulled her hair off and...,” She went on and on.
Hunter playfully rolled his eyes at Helen’s remark with a smile. They proceeded through their day exploring the good side of Old Willow by heading towards different key locations to ask for alms. Their cans had no luck for that day and by the time the sun had gone down they still had a meager amount of six dollars. Alas, they headed back to the slums with the amount they amassed.
As the Good Side had quieted down with the citizens having went back to their houses for the night, the slums had become lively as usual in the evenings. The ruined buildings all lit up with candle lights and weak lightbulbs.
There was a hint of tension in the air despite the vivacity of the slums. What tragedy had befallen now? After all tragedies always plague the slums. Hunter and Helen approached a round woman, who was watering her plants outside the bakery. The two of them considered this woman, who went by the name as Ms. Gretel, their friend because she always let them inside her run-down bakery to eat for free on Fridays.
“What happened?” Helen asked Ms. Gretel.
“Oh, you two better head on home this instance. Ms. Rita’s son escaped from prison and most likely he’s heading to his mom for money or a place of refuge. I wouldn’t want to know the end of what happens if he comes in the way of you two!”
Helen and Hunter shuddered because they knew this man was dangerous. Two years ago, a girl about their age that lived with them at Ms. Rita’s vanished in the middle of the night. Her body appeared the following day in a vacant room in the same tenement building. Later that day, Ms. Rita’s son confessed to the murder in a state of drunkenness, never coming back from that fateful bar visit, for he had been thrown in jail.
They ran towards Ms. Rita’s home, which was in a lot of ways their home as well. Just as they were about to reach the tenement darkness had fallen—It was nightfall. In the distance the sirens of the police cars and whirring of a helicopter with its searchlight aiming down at the streets were heard by Hunter and Helen. There were no lighted streetlamps in the desolate street, so the two children were engulfed in the obscurity of night; not even the moon shone since it was hiding behind the gray clouds above, almost as if it was afraid of the killer that was on the loose.
Helen jumped back in fright when Hunter was suddenly ripped from her hand.
“One little shout from either of you and his throat is cut,” Mrs. Rita’s son threatened with his husky, grim voice. His knife gleamed in the darkness as it was held very close to Hunter’s neck, so close that Hunter felt the tip pierce his skin, drawing blood.
“Please just let us go,” pleaded Helen in a quiet whisper. She could barely see the killer and his captive in front of her. The only audible thing that her ears picked up from either the escaped killer and Hunter was the boy’s frantic heart beating in the darkness like the beating of a snared bird’s wings.
“How can I trust that you won’t give them my location, huh?” The killer wasn’t fooled by the ragged girl. He knew from the letters that were sent by his mom that this girl she had under her roof was quite a handful due to her mighty silver tongue. He heard in the distance the helicopter and the police sirens closing in on him. His liberty was short-lived, and he had nothing to lose and neither did the boy he had in his murderous grasp. The killer gripped his knife tightly, ready to slice the jagged blade across Hunter’s neck.
Helen let out a horrified scream, but her voice was immediately drowned by the whirring of the helicopter that appeared above them. The light of the helicopter shone on the killer. A laser dot appeared between his eyes before a shot of a sniper rang in the still air. The killer was thrown backward from the impact of the headshot, releasing Hunter from his vicious hold.
For a second it seemed like it was all over for Hunter but like an answered prayer his life was restored with the seemingly heavenly lights that came from the police that flooded the street.
When the police arrived at the scene the moon was no longer eclipsed by the clouds. The entire street was alit with all the radiance that came from the searchlight, the police cars, and the liberated pale moon.
Instinctively, Hunter looked back to see what had happened to his attacker. He laid his eyes on the body but soon after wished he hadn’t; the body laid on the cobbled street without its head anywhere in view. One second Hunter was being held hostage by this man and the next he was safe and sound while his attacker was dead. It had all happened far too quickly for Hunter. The world around him began to spin; the lights of the sirens, the bloody corpse, and Helen in all her wild glory merged into one whirling image until everything went completely black. Hunter collapsed to the ground in a faint.
The cold of night awoke Hunter from his slumber. The last thing he remembered were the events that had transpired. He was cold even though he had a blanket over him. Hunter got out of bed but was stopped in the darkness by a small hand.
“Is that you Hunter?” whispered a familiar and kind voice. It was Helen.
“What happened?” he inquired. He had so many questions in his mind.
“You passed out and one of the police had to carry you into the tenement. They ticketed Ms. Rita for negligence the second they passed through the door. Also…,” Helen pursed her lips in the darkness. She wanted to proceed but didn’t know how to since the words that lingered at the tip of her tongue could lacerate Hunter’s heart if uttered.
Hunter’s heart skipped a beat. Did another tragedy occur? It was the only explanation as to why Helen was having a difficult time speaking any further.
She finally spoke. “Ms. Rita is considering kicking you out.”
“But why?” Hunter breathed out. He almost collapsed to the floor on his knees at her revelation, stricken by the hopelessness of the situation.
The bedroom door flung open and the dim light of a lantern illuminated part of the room, including the spot where Helen and Hunter stood in the middle. The other children were fast asleep and shifted in their beds, holding onto their dreams and fighting hard not to wake up amidst the silent commotion that was occurring.
A bony and wrinkly face appeared in the darkness, illuminated by the lantern. Ms. Rita’s tousled and dirty white hair covered her face like a veil while her robe looked more like a long rag than anything else.
Ms. Rita grabbed Hunter by his arm, threw him out of the room, and closed the door behind her. “If it wasn’t for you my son would still be alive as we speak.” She set her lantern on the small table in the living room and pointed a long bony finger at Hunter.
“Please don’t kick me out!” implored Hunter in tears.
Ms. Rita kicked him back straight in the stomach. “You killer! You even have his blood on your shirt!”
Hunter wiped his tears from his eyes. He felt a sudden flash of bravery rush through his body. He rose from the ground, facing Ms. Rita with a stern glance. He was shaking but that was understandable since this was the first time he was confronting Ms. Rita in such a brave manner. The specks of blood on his shirt weren’t a problem since he had a spare shirt hidden around. “You helped your son kill that girl. You didn’t rape her like he did but you tried to cover up for him. I wonder what the police would think about that little bit of information.”
“Ha!” she scoffed, “As if the police are ever going to believe an insignificant little slum-dog.” She held herself back from saying and doing anymore because she knew where Hunter really came from. She knew his past, a past that he could not remember. She also couldn’t kick Hunter out when she had a bi-annual check that came to her just for keeping him in the squalor he lived in. “Go back to your bed. I swear to god if you don’t bring back more than what you brought today you’re sleeping outside tomorrow.”
Hunter hurried to his bed and laid there. He was unable to sleep. He felt Helen’s gaze fixed on him, but neither wanted to talk because they feared the punishment that would come from Ms. Rita if she heard their voices. After an hour, Hunter had finally fallen asleep, drifting into the same dream which involved him wandering in a green field that was heavy with the aroma of roses and other flowers while in the distance a white mansion with a dark blue roof stood tall atop a hill. In his dream he heard the voices of a man and woman in the distance, talking to him with lovely affectionate praises as if he were their son. His beauteous dreaming was soon interrupted by the sound of Ms. Rita’s ringing bell that she shook to purposely awaken the children. A new day had arisen.
Ms. Rita narrowed her eyes at Hunter. She was expecting more dollars today and he knew what would await him if he didn’t meet her demands. Life went on as usual despite the events of the previous night. Violence or any other mishap was a normal sight to behold in the slums after all.
Hunter and Helen were soon on their way in the labyrinthic streets of Old Willow. This time they didn’t go to the church because it was Monday, and no one would be there.
“Where can we go to collect?” asked Helen.
Hunter shrugged carelessly. “Let’s go read instead.”
Helen’s eyes widened. She couldn’t believe Hunter’s sudden nonchalance. “What has gotten into you? Are you crazy? We all heard Ms. Rita threaten you last night and I’m not going to allow you to be kicked out of the tenement.”
Hunter headed towards their favorite spot, but he stopped in his tracks when he saw someone unexpected waiting for them at the underneath of the bridge.