Riches to Rags

Chapter 8

It’s… not what I expected. Then again, I’m not really sure what I did expect.

It’s loud, busy, and downright chaotic. Maybe I came at a bad time. There’s long tables stretching down the middle of the room, with benches either side, and dozens of people tucking into what looks like bowls of porridge, or maybe its oatmeal. I wonder to myself if they have a menu, and almost crack out laughing at the absurd notion.

“You lost, honey? First time here?” A middle-aged, bronze-skinned woman interrupts my thoughts.

“Erm… yes. And Yes. I think I might just leave,” I say. I’m not much of a social animal these days, and the sheer number of people in here is starting to make me feel claustrophobic. As I turn and walk away, I feel myself lightly gripped above the elbow, and instinctively shake it off. I’ve lost count of the number of times people on the street have pawed at me, like I’m a possession to be won. I’ve learnt the hard way to fend perverts off before they can even start on me.

“At least get something to eat before you go. You can take-out if you want,” the woman says. I guess it was her hand on my arm, and I feel a little bad since she’s only trying to help. I nod my head, and allow myself to be lead to the dwindling queue. It doesn’t take long until I’m at the front, and that’s when I see a surprised pair of blue eyes boring into mine, and my heart lurches, catching me completely off-guard. My initial surprise is soon offset with a sudden anger, and I have no idea why, but the sight of Korra, ready to dish out porridge to me like I’m some pathetic, helpless idiot… it makes my blood boil. I ignore it. I need food, so I bite back my pride and clench my fists, keeping them tucked into my pocket so that nobody can see.

“Korra sweety, give this nice lady something to take out, and make it a big portion, okay? Poor dear looks like she’s wasting away,” the woman says, then saunters away, with a larger than life ass swinging almost hypnotically. I suppose with curves like that, she probably thinks I’m a stick insect. I return my gaze to Korra. Or should I say, the famous fucking movie star, who’s stood there gawping at me, no doubt smug about her lot in life.

“Thanks,” I growl, barely concealing my anger when a box full of warm slop is handed to me. It looks like grey pig swill, but it smells delicious, and when you’re this hungry, anything is good.

“Anytime. Come back later, we’re serving chicken and rice tonight,” Korra says, flashing a wide grin. The joy in her voice sends me over the edge, and I clutch my free lunch to my chest, scowling at her.

“Why the hell are you even here?” I say, my voice louder than even I expected, and a few heads turning from the harshness of my tone. The girl looks like a frightened rabbit for just a second, but then wide, surprised eyes are replaced with a frown.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she asks, looking genuinely confused.

“Pitying the homeless are we? Getting a buzz from being a good Samaritan?” I say, unable to keep the bitterness from my voice, and a part of me is screaming inside, telling me to stop being such an absolute ass.

“I’m not pitying anyone,” Korra says, scooping out another bowl of slop for the next in line, “Look, I’m just trying to he…”

“Bullshit,” I hiss cutting her off, her face forming an angry scowl at my words, “why the hell does some big movie star need to be here? Are you researching for your next part? Trying to get into the heads of the poor little people on the street?”

Her cheeks glow a little redder, and I can’t work out if she’s upset or pissed off. I don’t know why I’m this angry, I don’t know why I’m taking any of this out on her. Before she can answer, I turn around and storm out, ignoring the curious glances all around and clutching my free lunch to my chest. As I leave and the bracing cold hits me, I wonder for a moment if I should eat my food later, since the warmth from it is comforting. No, I’ll worry about heat later. I’m starving. I hurry to the nearest park bench, sitting down and practically inhale the contents, almost burning my mouth in the process.

Something disturbs the corner of my vision and I look up from the almost-empty carton. It’s a bottle of water, held by a tan-coloured hand, and I look up to see familiar blue eyes staring back. Korra’s expression is unreadable, and I can’t help but wonder why she’d follow me outside after my little tantrum. Maybe she wants to shout, get her own back. Maybe it’d serve me right.

“You forgot to take a drink,” she says, with no anger in her tone, “that stuff’s salty, so you’ll need it later.”

“Thanks,” I say, accepting the bottle, feeling more ashamed then ever of my earlier outburst. I’m almost certain it was fuelled by severe hunger, but I know that’s still no excuse, and I really feel like I should apologise. Before I can say anything, Korra sits down next to me, and I raise an eyebrow questioningly.

“Look, I get it,” she says, “when you’re so hungry that everyone and everything just pisses you off. It’s hard for most people to even imagine what that feels like.”

I feel like making some shitty comment, ask her if her role-research has given her this insight, but then I notice the look in her eyes as she stares at the ground. And that’s when I finally put two and two together, and feel like smacking myself in the face. Korra’s no doubt a brilliant actress, but there’s a certain look someone has - a look that shows they’ve hit rock bottom, and it’s not a look that a person can fake, or act. You can’t change that haunted look, no more than you can change the colour of your skin.

“How long were you on the streets?” I ask, staring intently at her. She looks up at the sky, then turns to me and smiles, and it’s the first time I’ve noticed, but she has a beautiful pair of lips.

“Honestly? I’m not sure,” she says, returning my gaze, “I kind of lost track of time, but it was a couple of years or more.”

Shit… two years. That’s four times longer than me… and now I definitely feel bad for my earlier outburst. “I’m… sorry,” I say, finding it hard to form the words, that they feel strange in my mouth, and I guess it’s because it’s the first time I’ve apologised to anyone since I lost my home.

“Don’t mention it. Like I said, I get it,” Korra says, resting her back against the bench and looking out towards the park. There’s a woman hurrying past with at least four dogs on a leash, probably a dog walker. I miss having a job. I miss having a purpose. I look up, noticing another billboard with Korra’s face plastered on it on one of the skyscrapers just opposite.

“So how did you go from being a bum to having your head over there?” I ask, pointing to her giant, scowling, mean-looking face.

“Oh man,” she says, fumbling awkwardly in her hair, “I hate those things. It’s a long story. But it started with me swallowing my pride, and letting people help me,” she says, looking intently at me. I shift my gaze away, focusing on a pebble on the ground, knowing full well she’s staring at me. Then there’s a long silence, because I don’t really know what to say anymore.

“Anyhow, you know where the shelter is now, and nobody can force you to do anything, but stay safe, okay? And stay warm,” Korra says, and in the corner of my eye I watch her stand up and then slowly walk away. I get an unfamiliar feeling, guilt maybe, that I didn’t at least say goodbye. It’s only then that I realise she’s left her thick, blue jacket on the bench, and I’m about to call her over when I spot a note on top of it.

It’ll get really cold soon. Look after this for me. - K

I choke back a sudden flood of tears, pick up the jacket, and hold it tightly against my chest.

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