Chapter Two: Free from Hell, Imprisoned with a Broken Heart.
Helen scornfully gazed at Ana who was sitting in their usual spot under the bridge with a small dog on her lap. Ana wore a school uniform; however, school wasn’t out so early in the day. In matter of fact school had just started since it was only eight in the morning. “What are you doing here?” Helen asked curtly but harshly.
Hunter smiled at Ana, eliciting a blush from the girl. “Was there no school today and you didn’t know?” he asked nicely as if he had known the girl for a while, which wasn’t the case since they had only met yesterday.
Ana shook her head, looking somewhat ashamed. “Not really. I saw you guys passing by so I asked my teacher if I could use the restroom and I snuck out.”
Helen was incredulous over what she just heard. “You’re telling me that you skipped school so you can sit under a dirty bridge. Whose dog is that anyway? I’m sure they don’t allow dogs in class.”
“I believe this dog is a stray. I found her here…I thought you guys knew about it?” Ana was beginning to get spooked by Helen’s hostility. She handed Hunter the stray German Shepherd puppy, ready to head back to where she came from.
Hunter called out after her. “Wait! If you want, you can stay with us. We do a lot of reading and writing here so hopefully you don’t get bored by that.”
Helen was in utter disbelief. This cannot be happening right now, she thought. She nudged Hunter’s ribs with her elbow. “What if her parents come here and catch us with her again, huh? I’m sure that woman who slapped you will tear your head off this time!”
Hunter gave her look that told Helen to be patient and courteous. “Her parents don’t even know she’s here so it’s all fine.” He smiled at Ana once more.
“I’m so sorry for yesterday,” Ana said as she glanced at Hunter’s bruised left cheek. “Constance always has a habit of hitting poor children. She just has this hatred for them and I don’t understand why!”
“Obviously, you don’t understand,” Helen put a heavy and brusque emphasis in her rejoinder towards Ana. She proceeded in retreating towards the wall with the puppy in her arms after she had taken it from Hunter’s arms. “You can go away now.” She waved her hand at the girl in a shooing motion.
Hunter rolled his eyes and laughed lightly to brighten the moment. “Anyways, here are the books I have.” He held his hand out towards Ana, who took it as they walked towards the wall with the secret compartment at the bottom where the books were stored.
Helen was displeased with Hunter’s kindness towards Ana, so she sat there fuming silently as she stroked the fur of the stray puppy.
“What should we name the dog?” Hunter asked the two girls.
“Patsy!” exclaimed Ana in girlish jolliness.
Ana and Hunter looked back at Helen, waiting for her choice of name for the puppy. She remained quiet, ignoring them as she kept hold of the dear little thing in her arms.
Hunter wasn’t all that delighted by Helen’s attitude. What had gotten into her? Ana is just another kid like us – I don’t understand why Helen has to act this way. No wonder we get a bad reputation because of people like Helen who don’t know how to be civil. Just as Hunter was thinking those thoughts, Helen got up and gave the puppy to Hunter before leaving him alone with Ana. She didn’t say a farewell or anything of that sort. Hunter wanted to go after her, but he couldn’t be a bad host and leave his guest unattended.
“So, Patsy it is then,” Hunter concluded as he hugged the puppy close to his chest while Ana gazed at Hunter with sparkling eyes of admiration.
“She doesn’t like me at all,” Ana said, referring to Helen’s behavior towards her.
“She’s really nice. Just give her some time,” replied Hunter with a smile. He began to build a little house made out of cardboard for the puppy since he couldn’t take Patsy with him to the tenement.
The morning had passed hazily with the sun high up in the sky. Ana and Hunter had spent their time together reading. Hunter would read aloud while Ana sat on the ground with Patsy in her lap. After a while, Ana glanced at her watch that was strapped around her right wrist and saw that it was noon; she had to go back to school before the final hour or else her teacher would take notice of her absence.
Hunter saw the apprehensive look she bore when she glanced at the time on her watch. “You gotta go?”
Ana nodded and said, “Yes, but can we spend the morning together again sometime?”
“You’re going to get in trouble,” warned Hunter with a saddened sigh. Indeed, he did enjoy her company, but it was risky having her around. She could get into problems at school and by her parents; he could also face some dire consequences such as another slap to his face or worse.
“No, I’m not.” Ana got up from where she sat. She left but not without planting a quick kiss on Hunter’s cheek.
Hunter’s face flushed at the touch of her soft lips. That was the first time a girl had done that. But my face is dirty! he thought, utterly stunned. He looked at her flabbergasted, but she was already on her way up the hill, leaving Hunter alone in complete perplexity.
The sky was darkening as gray clouds suddenly began to roll in. Thunder was heard in the distance and all the daily commotion was dissipating with the coming storm. Hunter was about to sprint across town and try to get back into Rita’s place before the eventual downpour began. His pockets were empty but hopefully Ms. Rita would overlook the simple fact that he did not meet her demands for today. If she’s capable of doing the things she does, then what makes me think that she’s going to give me shelter tonight?
There was no use in going to Rita’s, but it was well worth a try. Next to his legs he heard Patsy cry. She sensed that Hunter was going to leave her alone in the dark.
Hunter looked down at his feet where the puppy was keeping close to him, not wanting him to leave. Her little head brushed against his legs as she looked up innocently and somberly at him, almost pleading him to take her with him. I can’t leave you too, he thought with a heavy heart. He picked Patsy up and began his trek across town. Just as he entered the tenement, the rain cascaded onto the earth after a booming clap of thunder shook the old building. There were screams from within the many rooms – some people were afraid of the thunder and lightning as if it were a nightmarish thing for the sky to make such near-apocalyptic sounds. There was another boom of thunder as Hunter walked up the dark stairway. This time he did feel the eerie feeling that a clap of thunder could stir in someone, especially when they were alone and in the dark.
The storm outside didn’t sound natural whatsoever. It sounded like a celestial battle between angels and demons was transpiring instead with each roar of thunder being the sound of swords clashing; the blood of the fallen pouring down unto the earth as heavy rain. Hunter shuddered at the thought of demons and their monstrous countenances, so he speedily made his way up the stairway.
He knocked at Ms. Rita’s door. At first there was no response but after the second knock the door opened. Thankfully it was Helen who had opened the door. She smiled warmly at Hunter before her eyes became fixed on what he was holding in his arms.
“You brought the dog with you?” she asked in a whisper, incredulous over his bravery of defying yet another of Ms. Rita’s rules.
There was a bright flash of lightning outside followed by another shaking roar of thunder. “I couldn’t just leave it out there to get taken away in a flood by these rains.”
“Who are you talking with!” yelled a raspy voice from within.
Hunter rolled his eyes, preparing for the worst.
“You don’t have any money with you, huh?” assumed Helen – an assumption that was spot on.
Ms. Rita appeared behind Helen like a ghostly figure. She put a bony hand on the girl’s shoulder and moved her aside. “If it isn’t Hunter…glad you showed up. Alright boy, show me what you collected today.” She extended her arm outward with an open palm. Her body stood on the other side of the threshold while her arm was the only thing sticking out towards Hunter like a bothersome withering branch.
Hunter clutched the puppy close to his chest and shifted his feet, feeling somewhat mortified. He gave Ms. Rita a pleading look. Please just for today let me in and I’ll make it up to you tomorrow, he wanted to say.
Ms. Rita shook her head and shoved her hands in her ragged apron’s pocket. “You’ve brought a dog,” she remarked disdainfully, “Are you planning to cook it and share with us all on this cold evening because by the looks of it you don’t have any money on you.” Hunter opened his mouth to protest but he was shut up by Ms. Rita who had interrupted. “I don’t want to hear it today. I don’t want to see you today. Good night!” She slammed the door in his face. The slam echoed throughout the tenement. Hunter heard the cries of a baby, who was awakened by the slam in a room down the hall. A woman was crying in another room while a drunken man tried to walk up the steps but couldn’t keep on walking since his balance was off, so he got on all fours and drunkenly began crawling up while singing a vulgar tune.
Hunter had no choice but to leave the tenement. He was instantly soaked by the cold downpour when he stepped outside. He began to shiver as he made his way across the street. A week ago, someone had abandoned their car in front of the tenement and that was the shelter that Hunter sought out. He broke the back window of the car before letting Patsy in and crawled into the car once the dog was in. Lying in the back of the car were pieces of thick cardboard already cut out, which Hunter used to cover up the broken window. Now no rain would get in for the time being.
His stomach began to growl just as he was about to settle in and become comfortable with his temporary home. Hunter was hungry but there was no food. In matter of fact he hadn’t eaten all day and it was seven in the evening. Hunter began to feel the malnourishment instantly as he realized that he didn’t even have a crumb of bread in his stomach. His world spun and he felt sick to his gut. Trusting Patsy in not escaping, Hunter decided to close his eyes to quell his sudden headache. The last thing he heard was the rain hitting the roof of the car in a fast melody that began to slow as he drifted into a slumber.
Hunter instantly awoke when he heard a knock on one of the windows. He tensed in fear. What if this car wasn’t entirely abandoned? What if he had broken into the home of someone who couldn’t afford a room in the tenement and therefore had to use their car for shelter? Hunter didn’t know what to do.
“Who’s there?” he blurted out nervously.
“It’s Helen. Open up!” she said as she knocked one more time.
Hunter leaned forward and opened one of the back doors for Helen. She entered the car with a large thick blanket under her arm and a thermos, which she handed to him. “Watch out, it’s kind of hot.”
Hunter smiled with pursed lips as he smelled the contents of the thermos. It was chicken soup, which was so warm that his entire body began to feel alive as he held the thermos in his hands. “What time is it?”
“It’s a little past midnight I think. I waited until everyone had fallen asleep to see if you were outside. I kind of saw your shadow in the car,” she began to say before she sighed and shook her head; “It’s getting worse each day with Ms. Rita. We have to do something about this Hunter.”
Hunter took a sip from the chicken soup. “Like what?”
“We can escape and leave Old Willow far behind. We can have a new life elsewhere, away from Ms. Rita and away from everything that we’ve known in our entire lives. We can move onto something better.” Her eyes shone dreamily when she imagined her and Hunter taking a train to another state and having a job or something. “As long as we’re far from here.”
Hunter wolfed down the chicken soup. He put the empty thermos aside and held Helen’s hands in his. “Can you give me some time to think about this?”
Helen raised a brow. “Think? What is there to think about Hunter? Weren’t you the one that was tired of living like this? What has changed?”
“We can’t go out in the world empty handed! I need to plan this out,” Hunter responded with determination.
Helen gazed at him with a pensive stare.
If Hunter hadn’t met Ana things would have turned out so differently. He would have agreed with Helen’s plan and they would have found a way to jump-start the car and drive off into the night. Hunter was bewitched by the affluent girl and he knew his attraction towards her was wrong, but he couldn’t help it –especially after that kiss from earlier.
Helen averted her gaze from Hunter and exhaled sadly. She couldn’t leave without Hunter because of her amorous feelings for him. What am I thinking, she thought, I have feelings for Hunter? What kind of feelings? What is happening to me?
Hunter was already under the warm blanket that Helen had brought him. He invited her to get near him and the two of them slept together under the blanket until the sun rose the next morning.
“Ugh, how is she not dead?” mumbled Hunter while Ms. Rita shook her bell, awakening everyone. He had gone through this routine ever since he could remember and as he got older he began to loathe every part of it. He woke up groaning.
“As for you, birthday boy, you get the day off,” Ms. Rita sneered next to his ear.
Helen who had grown to become the beauty of the tenement walked towards Hunter and patted Ms. Rita’s back. “Careful now, he might wake up and swat you like a fly.” Helen moved lithely towards the mirror and admired herself. Since the black dress she used to wear as a child was big on her then, it fit perfectly now that she was seventeen years old. Her hair was a bit more disheveled though, but still she was considered one of the most beautiful girls in all the slums. Obviously, she wasn’t considered beautiful in the good side of Old Willow since all they saw was her dirty face and old dress.
“I’m awake!” announced Hunter sarcastically. In the living room, he heard the children play with Patsy who had grown to become a majestic dog of great size and a lot of energy. “And yes, I heard you Ms. Rita.”
Helen narrowed her eyes at Hunter. It had been six years since the two of them had planned their escape, yet their plan has yet to come to fruition. Hunter got up and slipped a shirt on over his body. His black hair was still a mess and his shirts were still brown with grime and his pants were still a compilation of patches. The only thing that stood out in all this muck were his emerald green eyes.
“Don’t come back too late. I’ll have a surprise waiting for you when you return,” explained Ms. Rita. In all his years of living with her Ms. Rita was being awfully nice that day.
Hunter and Helen said their farewells and left the tenement. Their first stop was the bakery where Hunter received a free meat pie and a promising desert for later. Helen was happy to see that Hunter was content. She had finally figured out her feelings for him, but she couldn’t share them with Hunter. What if he didn’t love her the way she loved him? Hunter was oblivious to her thoughts. As she pondered and admired him, he looked at her with pie stuffed in his mouth, his cheeks inflated like a hamster storing nuts.
She shook her head and chuckled. “You’re such a dork.”
After their breakfast the two of them crossed Colby Street and were on their normal route towards their bridge. I’m surprised what’s-her-face hasn’t shown up, Helen thought – referring to Ana. Ana had been hanging out with Hunter and Helen ever since that day when they were children. She was inseparable. To Hunter, Ana was just a good friend. To Helen, Ana was like the piece of resilient gum that wouldn’t come off her boot.
“Hunter! Helen!” Speak of the devil. Ana had appeared at the corner of the street in her school uniform. She had grown up to become one of the most popular girls in her school, which meant she had to be good-looking, smart, and she had to have an extensive knowledge in fashion. That wasn’t a problem with her since her parents were rich after all, so she met the particular criteria perfectly. “Happy birthday Hunter!” she exclaimed joyously. “I’ve never understood how you know your birthday if you have no recollection of your life as a toddler. Did the lady you live with just invent a day and said it was your birthday?”
“Actually…,” Hunter began to say in a matter-of-fact tone, “Today is the day that she found me so yes she kind of made up the day. I don’t know what day I was actually born on, but I intend to find out one day.” Ever since he was a child he had always asked Ms. Rita if she knew anything about his parents or where he came from. When such questions were asked, she would always change the topic or ignore him.
“Any plans for today?” asked Ana with a smile as she came in between Hunter and Helen.
Helen grimaced at the sound of Ana’s voice. “Just the usual.”
“Perfect! I love the usual,” remarked Ana as she skipped along with the adolescent paupers. Everyone that had seen Ana walk or get near Hunter and Helen thought that she was doing some sort of charity work. Things were much, much more different in reality. She wasn’t doing any charity work; she was just having a great time.
As they headed towards the bridge, Helen spoke. “I’m going to go get some lemonade.”
“I don’t want any. Thank you, though,” Ana said without daring a second glance at Helen.
“I wasn’t asking you,” Helen derisively shot back before she continued her way towards a farmer’s market nearby.
Hunter and Ana sat in front of the wall under the bridge. This place was truly home for Hunter but for Ana it was an escape from her boring life. She always yearned for something new; the day she stumbled across that bridge six years ago was a miracle in her eyes. Hunter retrieved an unabridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas from the compartment in the wall and leaned back on a chair he had made. He was really craving for lemonade so he hoped that Helen wouldn’t be gone for too long getting it.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get you an actual present this year,” Ana had said as she got near Hunter. She put her hand on his thigh.
Hunter shut his book and set it aside. “Uh,” he looked down at where Ana’s hand was at.
She continued as did her groping. “You’re eighteen now. I’m eighteen and from the looks of it you’re ready to do some better things.”
“Out here?” he asked nervously. “I’m not much of a fan of public display of affection but this…this…,”
Ana leaned forward and kissed Hunter on his lips, shutting him up. She grabbed his hand and put it under her skirt. At first Hunter wasn’t kissing her right but then he quickly got the hang of it. He grabbed her and put her on his lap.
“I have a hotel room in reserve not far from here,” she whispered in his ear.
Hunter smiled. “I like the sound of that.” He was so caught up in his lust that he had forgotten all about Helen and the lemonade she was bringing. He held Ana’s hand as she lured him away from the bridge and into the hotel where she had a room in reserve. There, Hunter had an experience like none other.
Afterwards, Ana was left sleeping in bed with the covers twisting around her naked body while Hunter was washing off in the shower. What does she see in me? he asked himself as he put his shabby clothes back on. With a nearby pen and paper, he wrote Ana a note in cursive, explaining to her that he had to leave immediately and that he hoped to see her again. He should have mentioned that he hoped to see her as a friend only and not a lover. Alas, he didn’t think about that since his mind was all over the place.
After setting the note on the nightstand next to Ana, he rushed out of the hotel. He felt good about what happened but at the same time guilty because he had just realized that he abandoned Helen. His lust was appeased but his conscience was in disarray. He ran a hand through his coarse hair as he paced back and forth, beating himself for doing such a thing to the best girl he had ever known. He was beating himself over a situation he could easily deal with by doing one simple action. Hunter had realized that he wasn’t going to fix things between Helen and him if he just stood there in front of a hotel—he had to go look for her.
He made his way across town in a hasty manner. He walked past the bakery where Helen and he were planning on having dinner; he didn’t care because what good was the bakery if Helen wasn’t there with him? Hunter reached his goal: the tenement. He rushed up the dark staircase and knocked incessantly on Ms. Rita’s door.
After five hits, the door opened to Ms. Rita’s grim narrow eyes. “Just because you’re eighteen it doesn’t give you the right to bang on the door like that!”
Hunter sped through the threshold. He turned and looked at Rita with desperate wild eyes. “Has Helen come by recently?” he asked quickly because he was already out of breath.
“Yes, she has,” croaked Ms. Rita deviously as she locked the front door behind her. “She didn’t look quite happy. Tell me, boy, what did you do to her to make her seem so…broken? Even though she put up a straight face as always I noticed her despair in her eyes.”
Hunter quickly opened the bedroom without replying to Ms. Rita’s instigating comment. All the beds had their pillows and covers on except for Helen’s bed.
“She’s gone,” he murmured. Hunter was on the brink of grief. “Why didn’t you tell me!” he exclaimed to Ms. Rita.
“I was about to if you hadn’t interrupted! What’s the purpose of acting so educated and posh if you don’t have proper manners?” retorted Ms. Rita with a spiteful smile.
“Why would she leave…” Hunter was beginning to question many things, including his ill-action, when he saw a note on the ground that was recently crumbled up. He picked it up and when he unfolded it, it read: “Hunter, I have waited for your reply to what I proposed to you when we were children. You just turned eighteen and I’m about to follow in a week. We’re still in that dump and your time to answer is up. I hope we meet again.”
Hunter was strongly moved by Helen’s note that she had written to the best of her ability. He held the letter close to his chest as he stood still, holding back his tears. Helen was gone forever. They had the best, purest relationship.Unfortunately, his love for her was diminished by all the recent distractions of the adolescent age. Was he hurt due to the loss of a friend or someone he really loved? Only time would tell for the final answer.
“I’m sorry,” said Ms. Rita who was standing behind Hunter outside of the room. “But life moves on. Right now, I have to give you your gift. You’ll want to see this.”
Hunter shoved Helen’s note down his pockets before walking to where Ms. Rita was pointing at. He found a nice white shirt with a black vest, dressing pants, and black shoes. His shoes didn’t look as expensive and fine as the clothes, but they had quality and some shine.
“What’s this?” asked Hunter completely confused. Where had Ms. Rita gotten so much money to buy these garments for him?
Ms. Rita tore a note from the shirt and handed it to Hunter. “All that time with those books and you didn’t learn how to read?”
Hunter rolled his eyes at the old lady as he snatched the note from her. He scanned the contents of the letter. The letter was typed in Times New Roman with a size twelve font and the bottom was signed with ink in an elegant manner that belonged to someone who lived in one of the mansions in the suburbs. “It’s a letter from the Clearwater family asking me to work for them at their estate. They want me to be the new help. But why me? I’m sure they always get applications all the time and most of those times they never hire.”
“Apparently, your friend at the bakery put in a good word for you since she knows the cook there,” Ms. Rita shrugged, “I guess she picked you out these clothes for your arrival at the mansion.”
Hunter scowled in disgust at the clothes. It certainly wasn’t the style he would have chosen to show up to at the first day of work. Hopefully they give out uniforms, so I won’t be stuck with that, Hunter thought with a slight scowl.
“You’re expected at their estate by nine in the morning so I suggest you get some sleep so you can catch the train to the suburbs,” Ms. Rita added. Finally, the moment had come! If it hadn’t been for her back problems she would have jumped up and down in utter joy. Hunter was finally leaving her home. It was a moment of extreme happiness yet there was a sense of sadness. She was content because she was liberating herself of someone as annoying as Hunter. However, she was feeling sad at the same time because the meager check, which she thought meant so much wealth, would cease coming. The deal was that as long as Hunter stayed away from society and far from the truth, money would come her way. Surely if she saw her benefactor on the streets, she would give them a punch to their face for causing her to actually feel an emotion towards Hunter.
“Tomorrow,” Hunter murmured as he began to mull on what the future would bring. Tomorrow his life was completely going to change. He hoped for many good things to happen. Most of all, he hoped to find Helen in that big, wide world.