The air blew beneath the concrete overpass, twirling and twisting, picking up dried leaves and dirt on its cold journey. The sounds of the city drifted through the structure like the quiet whisper of a maiden’s wistful sigh. The hopes and dreams of those who passed above, hummed through the breeze, while the vibrations of cars crunching across the busy freeway, echoed the end of another long day. The laughter of lovers, noise and confusion of children, cries of broken promises, all lent their voices to the shadows of the crisp, cool night.
Huddled beneath the grey pillars, were those who called the massive old structure home. The many empty souls’ life had condemned to a hopeless damnation, imprisoned in shame and sorrow by a jury of pomp and circumstance. Their lives were very different from those passing above. No loved ones awaited their return at the end of a busy day, no warmth, optimism or happiness echoed in their hearts, no peace or comfort was within reach, in which to ease their bittersweet pain. There was nothing for them but the cold of night and the darkness of despair. The cries of hungry children, shivering in their worn lice-infested garments, bounced off the thick walls.
A scattering of graffiti paintings, served as a silent witness to those who had come and gone before. Each stroke stood as proof to the fate awaiting every helpless spirit who passed through the hollowed path of concrete. Death and hopelessness conquered the artists’ once vibrant existence, an eternal reality haunting each who dared to stare. They stood as a constant companion for all who walked this road of gloom in the form of spray painted faces, words, and slogans among the frozen mortar of time. A painful tribute to a sad fable without the vows of, happily ever after, written instead by the grievous twist of sobriety.
The wind drew in its angry breath, exhaling the gusts of damp cold around the supporting pillars of the bridge. It brought with it the sting of rain, spraying across the grime and filth caked on the faces of those flocked together for warmth. As the rain came down, so did the exhausted spirits of the homeless, leaving their hunger and despair burning as wild as the flames in the hollowed-out rubbish filled drum, burning red hot before them.
Cradled in her arms was the tiny body of an infant, left and forgotten by the actions of a mother, too distraught and strung out on drugs to remember her own child. Somewhere around four months old, the boy sniffled and whimpered softly against the young woman’s breast. His hunger ate away at his tiny resolve, his only knowledge of life was that of glum images, cold shivers and sorrowful cries.
Natasha hugged the baby she named Nate, after her twin brother Nathan, missing now two years. He was the reason she left all she had and knew, to join the ranks of the destitute. Barely nineteen, Nathan left his home, his life, his only sibling behind and disappeared among the shadows of the unknown. Their stepfather, ”King“, had kicked Nathan out of the house in a drunken stupor, accusing him of being a free loader and a worthless bum.
She knew her brother to be good and kind, at least he had always treated her and their mother that way, and yet she had to admit, something had changed within him over the last weeks he was at home. Something subtle and skillfully abstruse had begun transforming him, turning him into a recluse that even she had barely recognized. He began staying out late at night, sometimes not returning home for days. He stopped caring about everything, his family, his life, his dreams of law school, nothing seemed to make a difference to him anymore. Life had been hard enough on Natasha, with her stepfather’s anger and her mother’s drunken state of oblivion, but when she lost her brother, it was the final blow of an unjust destiny.
Stretching her toes inside the old, worn jogging shoes, Natasha felt the rough folds of paper beneath her dirty socks. She had hidden some money there, the last of what she had taken with her eight months ago when she left home. She had scrimped and pinched each cent since being on the streets, saving what little was left until she could stand the pain of hunger no longer. It had to last her, who knew how much longer. It may be necessary to use it to get her brother help when she found him. All of that changed, however, when she took baby Nate into her life.
Three nights ago, his mother left him, oblivious to his very existence. The pitiful cries of the abandoned infant, made Natasha choose to care for the child as her own. Last night, news that his mother’s lifeless body was found floating among the debris at the harbor, drifted through the grapevine of the homeless until it reached Natasha’s ears. Now she had no choice but to care for the child, taking him with her on her quest to find her missing brother.
Dismissing the thoughts of gloom and dread plaguing her tired mind, Natasha began to concentrate on how she was going to feed this newest member of her family. Finding only one bottle, dirty and caked with sour milk, among the belongings left behind by his mother, Natasha had rinsed it out, and filled it with fresh water from the fountain in the nearby park. This was the only substance the child had received in the past twenty-four hours. He was starving and in need of milk, which, at that moment she didn’t seem to have. Natasha knew he hadn’t had much to eat, even before his mother left. His pitiful little cries echoed through the structure each night, making her heart ache with sorrow. Thinking about the money in her shoe, feeling it again with her toes, she knew what she had to do.
The rain subsided shortly after nine o’clock, leaving only a soft drizzle of grimy water dripping off the overpass. Natasha bundled her new-found son in a dirty, ragged blanket left behind with his mother’s sleeping bag, hairbrush, and lipstick, then stepped out from under the protection of their concrete apartment. She had to get the baby some milk and find something for herself to eat, since she hadn’t eaten much more than the infant had in days.
Tonight, they would hide in the alley behind the Chinese restaurant, until it closed. She knew she could get food there and with a few of the dollars she had tucked inside her shoe, she should be able to buy some milk for Nate’s supper. Tomorrow, they would stand in line for a cot at the mission and hope for a dry warm bed for a night or two. Somehow, Natasha would have to find something more substantial for them. The brief thought of calling her mother to ask for help drifted across her mind, but the risk of her stepfather learning where she was and why, would be too immense even to try. Fear of his reaction was greater than her fear of the unknown, which forced her to continue with the short-made plans she had created for herself and the hungry baby squirming in her arms
Natasha walked to the rundown old store near their overpass home and slipped the money from her shoe to count it. Six hundred and eighty-seven dollars, a lot if you didn’t have money, but not enough to survive on for long. Quietly she hugged Nate closer to her, wrapping her old jacket around him before pulling the iron-clad door open. The smell of spilled cleaners and spoiling produce met her as she stepped through the threshold, demanding her nostrils to breathe around it.
She had been here once before, to purchase the personal items needed for her last monthly cycle, though she didn’t take much notice in her surroundings. She had seen several of the others who lived beneath the freeway, stealing what they needed and searching the trash cans in the alley for any discarded items or liquor bottles, with even a few drops of relief for a sobering mind. She only hoped she was never around when the police finally answered the owner’s call for protection.
The old Korean woman behind the counter looked up at the tinkling sound of the bell as the door opened, then went back to her bookkeeping without acknowledging her presence. To the old woman, Natasha was nothing more than another worthless bum, dirty and useless.
Walking quietly to the dairy section, Natasha opened the cracked glass door and removed a quart of milk, along with a pint of apple juice. She glanced back across her shoulder to the woman, who had been joined by an old man - no doubt her husband. They began speaking to each other in a language Natasha didn’t understand, yet knew by the way they watched her, exactly what the conversation was about. She knew without even having to consider her thoughts twice, they were waiting for her to steal something, anything. Perhaps they assumed the bulge of Nate’s body tucked beneath her jacket was a gun, or the concealing of stolen stash. Natasha presumed owning a business in this part of town wasn’t an easy task. Too many drunks, drug addicts, prostitutes and homeless made an honest man’s ability to make ends meet impossible.
Nate began to squirm beneath Natasha’s thin jacket, his soft whimper causing the aging eyes of the store’s owners to focus on the bulge. Slowly Natasha removed the coat from across Nate and cuddled him close to her cheek, revealing his existence to the elderly pair. Her heart thumped wildly inside her chest, as she wondered if the store owners suspected she was not the baby’s real mother. Would they call the police and have Nate taken away from her?
Natasha stepped cautiously to the register and placed the items she’d chosen on the counter. She counted out three single dollar bills and waited for the old woman to give her the change she had coming back. The store was quiet, so much so that the sounds of the old man, who had returned to the back room, could be heard like thunder bolts throughout the small building. Natasha waited patiently for the woman who seemed to take an unusually long time counting out forty-two cents change. When at last she had her precious few coins in her hand, Natasha turned around to leave, finding herself staring eye to eye at the wrinkled face of the old Korean man. At first, she was surprised, then she was afraid, when she saw him hold up a large canvas bag.
“You take,” he said in a thick accent, pushing the bag toward her.
Natasha shook her head, pulling Nate tighter in her embrace. She hadn’t taken anything, she paid for what she needed and right now she’d have given her last dime just to leave without trouble.
“No sir, I didn’t take that, I swear.”
Tears choked her throat and threatened her tone as she pleaded her innocence. The elderly man shook his head and held the bag out again.
“You take. You take for baby.”
Natasha turned away from the man’s penetrating stare to look back at the woman behind the counter.
“I don’t understand,” Natasha began again, only to have the man slip the heavy bag around the wrist she held her own small plastic bag on.
“You take! Baby needs more.”
Natasha smiled an awkward grin as she slowly stepped backward to the door. She had no idea what it was the old man forced on her, yet she’d have willingly accepted a python just to leave the tight confines of the little store.
Once outside she drew a deep breath, inhaling the dirty stench of the city. The rain did nothing to rid the air of the stale smells of rotting fish and oil that drifted in from the wharf. It seemed thicker than usual tonight, yet she felt the tranquilizing effects of freedom as she closed her eyes and leaned against the wall of the store. With a deep calming sigh, Natasha glanced down and cautiously looked in the bag around her arm. Inside were two sealed containers of powdered baby formula, two plastic baby bottles, a package of nipples, a can of powdered fruit juice, a dozen cloth diapers, a package of four diaper pins, a thick baby blanket, a rolled-up pair of flannel pajamas and a cosmetic bag with trial size bottles of baby shampoo, lotion, soap and powder. Natasha’s eyes filled with tears as she examined the items, feeling for the first time in eight months, the warmth of human kindness.
Slowly she placed the juice and milk she had purchased herself within the canvas confines, before continuing her journey. She vowed silently, placing her cheek against Nate’s dirty, soft head that this act of generosity would not pass blindly. Somehow, she would see to it the baby grew up happy and healthy, even if it meant going back home to her mother and stepfather.
Natasha continued walking the twelve blocks to the Chinese restaurant then ducking behind the dumpster in the alley, unseen by those passing by. The smell of rotting fish drifted out from the metal canister, making Natasha gag on her nausea. After a few minutes of huddling, the smell began to fade, her nose and senses becoming used to the aromas. She slid her bag of treasures from her arm and filled one of the new bottles with milk. It would be another hour or more before the restaurant closed, which would give her time to tend to Nate’s needs.
With the new blanket tucked around his tiny body, she cradled him gently to her breast, feeding him his first bottle of milk in more days than even she knew. Now warm and sheltered from the evening air, the child slipped easily into a silent, happy slumber, leaving Natasha to face the dark night alone.
The hours ticked by slowly, causing her limbs to ache from being curled up beneath her for so long. She stretched slowly, so not to disturb Nate, then stood and shook her legs to bring the circulation back into the tingling numbness. She glanced up at the night sky and considered the hour. She had been here long enough to watch the lights of the surrounding buildings dim and knew the restaurant was now closed, or soon would be. She also knew the ritual of the restaurant owner, she had watched them played out several times from a distance. Every night after closing, the fat Chinese man would load the leftovers from the day’s menu into boxes and bags and set them by the back door, while he locked up the rest of the building. He would then put them into the trunk of his little black Nissan, taking them with him for who knew what purpose.
Natasha sighed, pushing her nagging conscience aside, ignoring the tiny voice that assured her, her actions were nothing more than those of a common thief. Yet she had seen how others were treated by the Chinese man and knew her pleas would be met with even less generosity.
The restaurant owner was a cruel, mean spirited man with little good to say to anyone, even his customers. Natasha remembered visiting this place when she first arrived in town. Back then, she was clean dressed and a paying patron. She remembered the man’s rudeness and his vulgar stare as she sat alone eating. Since that day, she had seen his wrath released on those who dared approach him for charity. He would kick or beat the hungry souls with sticks for their efforts, then call to his employees who would chase them down. If the other Chinese workers managed to catch the vagrants, the perpetrators would be beaten into unconsciousness and left to bleed or die on the street, alone.
No, she decided with a determined frown, she would not listen to the inner voice she had always relied on to keep her out of trouble. Instead, she would use her time wisely and plot her moves, anticipating the Chinese man’s actions until the moment came for her to act. Her hunger and that of Nate’s was greater than the restaurant owner’s greed, and their need for survival was immediate. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Natasha thought of stories she’d read as a child, of England’s legendary Robin Hood and understood first-hand the guilt he must have endured as he robbed from those who would not share.
Just as always, the small fat Chinese man opened the back door to his establishment and looked around the dark alley. Nate slept silently in Natasha’s arms as she stayed motionless in the shadows behind the dumpster. The man scratched his big belly through the soiled apron stretched across the span of flesh and snorted his arrogance. He placed his bundles on the step, checking one last time for vagrants, before stepping back inside the building and closing the door behind him. Natasha breathed a sigh of relief as she stepped cautiously from behind the smelly trash bin. She hugged Nate to her breast and pulled the worn coat closer around them both, stepping silently toward the closed door. There were four large trash bags filled with food and two small boxes. She knew she’d never be able to carry even one of them with Nate cradled in her left arm and her right arm supporting her groceries, and time was of an essence.
Spotting an abandoned grocery cart near the front of the alley, Natasha hurried to commandeer it, laying the sleeping bundle of baby into the rusty seat. With a little shuffling, she managed to secure the boxes under the cart, tying her own bag of groceries around the handle, and then squeezed all four bags tightly into the basket. With her heart pounding like war drums and her palms sweating from fear, Natasha hurried out of the alley, making her way down the back streets away from the restaurant as quickly as she could. She knew she looked guilty as she glanced at the faces around her, but right now she didn’t care. She had to get away from this area as fast as possible, before the Chinese man or his employees could find her.
In the back of her mind, she could hear her mother scolding her for stealing. Her grandparents would be horrified with her actions and demand she make restitution, but her father would be proud of her for helping those who needed it. He had been a rebel in his youth, a hippie with a cause. Dreams of saving the world through love had been the backbone of her father’s faith. The thought of her estranged father and his plans for salvation willed her feet to move faster, pushing the rickety, squeaking buggy with its limping wheel along with her.
Back beneath the security of her concrete roof, Natasha found those who shared the space still huddled around the burning drum. There were nearly five homeless families struggling to survive there, along with several others who would drift through from time to time. They were all dirty, tired and hungry, many hadn’t had a meal in days, and the children who clung to their parents’ legs suffered the worst. With a sudden burst of courage shining on her dirty face and the feeling of charity in her now calm heart, Natasha hurried to join them.
The smells of food drifted ahead of her, causing the heads of her neighbors to turn in the direction of the squeaking grocery cart. Natasha smiled as she heard the cries of the children call out, “Look food!” She hurried to the small corner where she and Nate slept, laying the baby down on her sleeping bag, along with their private groceries, before unloading the rest of the packages from the rickety basket. A smile of amusement etched her delicate features as she examined the cart more closely. Two wheels were barely hanging on and the handle fell off completely the moment she removed her bags from it. Setting one of the boxes to the ground, she looked up at the gathering masses and smiled invitingly.
“Anyone up for Chinese?” she asked shyly, watching the group advance like a pack of hungry dogs and begin grabbing at the food.
Natasha took an old cup she had found some weeks ago in the gutter and rinsed it out in a tin bucket of rain water. Taking the cup back to her worn blanket, she sat down next to Nate and began to fill her empty stomach.
Conversation was rampant now that the pain of hunger was easing. Nate continued to sleep contently for the first time in days, his belly full, and his tiny body warm inside his thick, new blanket. Natasha watched the children as they ate their fill, unknowing and uncaring what it was they ate, so long as they had something in their stomachs. It was growing late, the hurried footsteps of those passing above could no longer be heard, and the crunching of automobiles on the worn concrete was rare. The voices of those left to huddle from the rain began to wind down and long periods of silence rose between them. Even the sounds of rats scurrying about the cracks and crevasses in search of food were rarely heard through the night’s stillness and bitter cold.
Suddenly a man’s voice called out, echoing off the thick graffiti walls like a gunshot, as he hurried to join the group. Those who knew him best called him Uncle Herman, even though he was barely more than thirty-two and nobody knew for sure if he really was an uncle or not. He was stronger than the rest of the men, with large muscled arms and chest rippling and straining against his clean cotton tee shirt, his long lean legs filled his tight jeans like a second skin. He seemed more educated than any man she’d ever met, which made him a logical leader among the group. His hair was soft and clean with blonde tresses that had been neatly combed away from his face to settle just below his shoulders. His blue eyes shined brilliantly in the soft shimmers of light from the street lamps as he quickly scanned the area.
Unlike the rest of them, Uncle Herman was always clean, appeared well fed and happy. He arrived on foot after spending the day at the wharf in some form of activity, Natasha had never felt brave enough to ask about. She had never spoken to him personally, though he was there often enough. He was the type of man that made men jealous and women weak in the knees, but with Natasha he seemed to somehow make her feel insecure and ashamed of what she had become. He said he came to check on everyone’s well-being, occasionally bringing them food and medicine. He would stay a short time before moving on to heaven knew where, then return on another night. There was something about the man however, that made Natasha feel as though he was always searching for something, or someone perhaps. It was a feeling she got every time she saw him scanning each face carefully.
“What’s this? You’re having a feast and I wasn’t invited?” he teased as he jumped the short retaining wall that divided the incline from the freeway above. His tone was cheerful, and a slight accent tinted his words.
“The quiet one brought it,” one man said around a mouthful of egg rolls, pointing a dirty scrawny finger toward Natasha.
Suddenly Natasha felt the full force of guilt for what she had done. She didn’t want to steal and under normal circumstances she would never have considered it, but she had to feed Nate and she knew the others were as hungry as she was. Her money was paltry and not enough to supply food for a group of this size, and even they deserved the right to survive. Most of the people who shared her small confines were homeless by the economy and so-called recession, and many had children, frightened and cold, going without food for days. In her mind, she was able to rationalize her actions, insisting that she had merely appropriated what was needed from those who had it and gave it to those in need.
“Help yourself, Son,” an old man called out, tossing a dwindling bag of food to Uncle Herman. He glanced to Natasha and nodded softly, gallantly, then reached into the bag and retrieved a handful of egg rolls.
Nate awoke momentarily only to whimper softly and pull his tiny fist into his mouth to suckle it, returning him to the quiet pleasure of sleep. Natasha pulled the new blanket closer around him, tucking it in beneath his tiny chin. Tomorrow she would bathe him with the little bottles of soaps the old Koreans gave her and put him in his new pajamas. It would give her a chance to wash the thin outfit he now wore, no doubt one given to him by the hospital when he was born, or found, on the street somewhere by his mother.
Picking up the remnants of food she had been eating, she placed them back into her bag for later and quietly cleaned up her small corner the best she could. They would eat well in the morning on leftovers, then she would try and find another way to feed them tomorrow night unless she found shelter at the mission, but tonight, they were happy and would all sleep well.
“Mind if I join you?” asked a deep voice, startling Natasha from her world of fatigue to look up.
Her breath caught in her throat when she found herself staring into the most electrifying green eyes she’d ever seen. Uncle Herman smiled down at her and winked a friendly eye before lowering his massive height beside her small bundle of bags, and the few treasures she’d found among the trash receptacles.
“It was very nice of you to think of the others,” he said, nodding toward the quieting crowd.
Natasha felt herself blush beneath the layer of grime and filth, smelling the sweaty aromas of her own stench mingle with the clean muskiness of the man’s next to her. She had been one of the lucky ones, she thought quickly, that was if rumors were to be believed.
Most women who lived among the streets were raped and beaten quite frequently. So far, she hadn’t been approached. The people here referred to her as the quiet one, which may have been the only thing to save her from ravishment. She stayed by herself and watched, waiting for anything to indicate someone may have seen or knew where her brother Nathan was. As far as she was concerned, being alone and left in solitude was fine with her, it didn’t mean, however, that she should turn her back on them in their hour of need.
“Everyone has the right to eat,” Natasha whispered among the dark shadows the streetlights created.
“Most wouldn’t think twice beyond their own comfort.”
Uncle Herman glanced to the boy sleeping next to her, his tiny fist stuck in his mouth and a frown of disturbing dreams etching his young features. “Is that Rita’s baby?” he asked softly as not to disturb the sleeping infant.
Natasha looked down at Nate and frowned. She’d never known his mother’s name until now. Somehow it made mourning her seem personal.
“She left him alone. Someone had to take care of him.”
“So, like the food, you decided to take on the task yourself? I’m impressed.”
Uncle Herman fell silent, leaning his back against the cold barrier of the concrete wall. He studied Natasha’s profile for several minutes in silence before speaking again.
“You don’t belong here, you’re not like the rest of these people. Why don’t you go home?”
“I don’t have one.”
A cop-out for an answer, but one she had heard used more times over the past eight months than she could count.
“Don’t give me that,” he snorted, assuring her he didn’t believe her attempt at an excuse. “Anyone with your heart and your compassion comes from a good home. Why did you leave? Wouldn’t they give you enough allowance to satisfy your shopping habits?”
Natasha stared angrily at the man before turning around to collect her bags. She refused to argue with him, regardless of how desperately he provoked her. If he knew why she was here, he would laugh and make some other snide remark about how spoiled and selfish she was. No, it was best to leave it alone, and him.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Sweetheart,” Uncle Herman replied to her back, his tone soft and gentle, and his accent running over her like warm water on a cold day. “I really didn’t mean it the way it sounded. You’re just different from the rest of the people down here.”
“Everyone has a story and an excuse for being here, don’t they? Some are just worse than others. I’m sure even you have a reason for being down here instead of wherever it is you came from.”
“Pasadena,” he answered softly, amusement echoing in his deep tone.
“Excuse me?” Natasha stopped her unconscious actions of cleaning and turned to him.
“You wanted to know where I came from. I came from Pasadena.”
“I didn’t ask where you came from, I was merely commenting. Oh, go away. I’m tired and I want to get some sleep before Nate wakes up.”
Uncle Herman’s voice took on a suddenly harsh edge, causing the hair on the back of Natasha’s neck to stand on end.
“The baby. I didn’t know what his name was, so I called him Nate. He wakes up every few hours, hungry.”
“I see. Well, perhaps tonight he’ll sleep longer. He has, after all, just been given his own personal guardian angel.”
“I wish that were true,” she replied softly, looking at the sleeping child again.
“Uncle Herman,” the old man who had invited him to join them earlier, interrupted the conversation with his shaky, aging voice. “What tales have you for us tonight?” Chuckling as he stood, Uncle Herman smiled apologetically.
“I must take my leave, M’lady,” he winked with an arousing smile. “My audience awaits.”
He turned and joined the others sitting around the still burning drum. The children gathered near him, some climbed on his lap as though he was Santa Claus while others edged closer to his knees. Natasha felt a soft pang of regret. Perhaps he was the closest thing to hope these children would ever know. He brought them food and medical supplies and always told stories or relayed information he had picked up during the day. To the children, he was every bit their Uncle Herman.
“I found out the state wants to tear down some of the old abandoned ghost towns still standing,” he said in a tone one could easily describe as bored.
“How can a state tear down a whole town?” a woman named Beverly asked, her two children laying their tired heads in her lap.
“It’s not hard when nobody lives in it,” he replied, and then went on to relay what he had heard.
The state of California, according to Uncle Herman, was overrun with small abandoned ghost towns left behind from the gold rush era. Many of the more accessible and better-preserved towns were made into tourist traps, while others were simply left alone to rot throughout the years. Now, the new governor was threatening to destroy these towns as a way of making room for the future of progress.
“It’s a pity they don’t give those towns to us,” Beverly’s husband, Jacob, commented.
“What would we do with them?” Peter Harris asked, picking up his brown paper sack and taking another swig from its hidden contents.
“My Jacob is the best carpenter this country’s ever seen. If it wasn’t for his company going out of business and the economy turning sour, we’d still have our big home and good life,” Beverly insisted with a tear in her voice.
She had been saying this for so long, she had convinced herself of its reality. Truth was, and all around them knew it, Jacob had a problem with gambling and drinking. He’d wasted their entire life’s savings and put them in the gutter with his habits, yet after fifteen years of marriage and losing the support and love of their families, Beverly remained loyal to her man. Pity was, he didn’t feel the same, as he eyed the pretty red-head they called Sugar. Her cheap outfit revealed parts of a well-endowed figure, sadly neglected by years of drug abuse and alcohol consumption.
Natasha sighed. She knew what the night held in store for all these people. Jacob and Beverly would again start fighting and Jacob would leave, only to meet with Sugar and have sex under the docks, five miles from here. The children would argue about their thin clothing and blankets, fighting with their siblings for the warmth of their mothers, while their fathers drank themselves into unconsciousness. Many would wander the streets, looking for warmer shelter, discarded liquor bottles, the occasional coin or a little cheap action in the back alleys.
The stench of rotting fish and polluted water drifted in on the night breeze, the aroma lingered in the nostrils of all who drew a breath, making the nauseated smells worse than normal.
“In my day,” Old Henry began, his aging voice shaking with remembrance, “we took pride in our work. Why, when we made a place, we made it to last for generations. That’s what my granddaddy did, alright. He helped build this country and all the hell you see around us.”
“That was years ago, old man,” Barkley grunted, tired of hearing stories of yesterday.
“Things don’t work out that way anymore,” a smaller voice sounded from the crowd.
“Things are definitely different,” another voice said.
Natasha turned her back to the crowd, blocking out their growing arguments. She snuggled close to Nate and quickly drifted into a quiet slumber.
The noises faded away as dreams of a happier time began to float behind her closed lids. Women in long gowns, men in top hats and children with dogs danced before her. A feeling of splendor and contentment lay across her heart and for the first time in what seemed like a lifetime, she was happy. Men tipped their hats as they passed, women bobbed politely, young maidens giggled behind their delicate lace fans, while interested beaus smiled and winked their desires. All was pleasing and clean and happy. The storefronts were white, and the windows twinkled in the morning light, casting rainbow shadows across the busy walkways. The sound of horses clogging along the dirt road, echoed like soft rumbles and the bells from the church rang out in the stillness of day.
Natasha saw herself in a gown of sapphire velvet, her red hair hung loose about her shoulders. Before her stood a man, tall and handsome, long blonde hair pulled back away from his firm, chiseled features by a satin ribbon. His eyes twinkled a brilliant green, on his lips was a smile so powerful it would have stopped a raging bull in its path. He was dressed in a fine wool suit, his face clean from stubble and the fresh scent of soap rose around him. His hands were large and tanned and his broad shoulders strained at the material of his fine white shirt. He bowed to her, then offered his arm to escort her across the street. A gallant gentleman if ever one existed, could never be as worthy as this man of her dreams.
The sounds of children’s voices grew louder along with those of men and the barking of dogs. Her solitude and contentment began to disappear, as her eyes were forced to flutter open. The smell of sewage and refuse drifted back into her senses, and the feeling of warmth against her shoulder in the night’s coldness, brought her eyes open wide, focusing on the handsome features of her gallant lord. She smiled and closed her eyes again, unwilling for the dream to end.
“Wake up, Sweetheart,” she heard him say in an urgent, accented tone, making her aware of the excitement and sounds around her. “We have to get out of here.”
“Why? What’s going on?” Natasha’s voice was groggy, and she sat up rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
“The police have been raiding all the homeless camps, looking for a couple who robbed a convenience store last night. We have to get out of here before they arrest the lot of us for loitering.”
Natasha’s attentions sharpened immediately, and she stood up, gathering together her few treasures. Uncle Herman picked up Nate who continued to sleep silently, regardless of the noise rising around him. He tucked the baby securely beneath his thick woolen jacket, then hurried up the small incline to the freeway above. Natasha turned around and saw the rest of the homeless scurrying here and there, fear and confusion erupted through the encampment.
“Come on, let’s get out of here,” Uncle Herman said hurrying Natasha along.
“What about the others?” she asked following him up the side of the overpass.
“They’ll be alright. Most of them left as soon as word came down that the police were coming.”
“What do you mean, word came down? From where?”
“The homeless have their own form of communication network. As soon as someone saw the cops, they told someone, who told another and so on. You were the only one asleep, so you didn’t hear the alert.”
“Where are we going?” Natasha asked, content with his answer, but confused with the direction he was taking.
“East, into the desert.”