Originally published in Heartbeat; A Literary Magazine- January 2016
No one would have hailed the day as being anything of any great significance. No harmonic convergence or earth shattering epiphanies of thought or spirit born. No celestial heraldry rang out from the ether to move full moon mystics to extend exotic alms.
It was just a Friday.
That was it.
It was snowing. People stayed in their houses curled up with books and lovers or comatose in front of the TV, mellow with cheap beer, California wine, cheese doodles, popcorn and decay, a slow suburban America in snowy January.
It was here in the twilight void of evening that I felt most free to roam, away from the prying eyes of the citizenry.
My friends used to call me Art. I say this in the past tense not because I’ve gone to the trouble of changing my name, or fancied a cooler moniker. It is because I no longer have any friends.
Nobody likes a thief.
On this particular Friday, I was bundled up, freezing, trudging across the darkening streets looking for product. I walked quickly, shying away from the sidewalks the best I could. The glow of the streetlights is best avoided in the off chance a patrol car gets the bright idea to come around snooping. That’s why I come out to the suburbs to work.
The city cops all knew me by name. If anything came up missing within a dozen blocks of my home they were knocking in my door. It had been that way since I was a teenager. I doubted it would ever change.
It is always easier to pilfer product in the suburbs, anyway. The cops out here are all about writing speeding tickets and the like. Now, the bone-chilling temperatures kept even the heartiest of cops in the warmth of the driver’s seat. They were loath to abandon their cruisers but for want of a warm meal or a moving violation. As long as I blended into the background they weren’t as likely to start asking questions, leaving me free to work.
On this particular night, I’d been out for a couple of hours and was raking in a fair bit of loot. The only trouble I’d had was in deciding how best to stuff it all in the multiple layers of clothing I was wearing. I still had to get back across town to retrieve my car. I didn’t want to arouse suspicion by walking around like I’d shit myself with a hot stereo swinging loose in my pants.
I had to duck into an alley and re-adjust my haul.
I took off my big warm bubble coat and start assessing the number of pockets available and what would best fit where. It was a good problem to have. I’d scored enough to keep me flush for a week or two.
After a few minutes spent stashing my stuff, I got the distinct feeling that I was being watched. I took a slow casual look around, ready to split at a moment’s notice.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a quick flash of something move behind a dumpster. It was small so I figured I’d spooked an alley cat or a raccoon out to score a snack. I shrugged it off and went back to what I was doing. I needed to hurry up and move before the cops rolled around.
As I turned to settle my coat around me and hide the superfluous bulges I’d arranged, I saw what I’d dismissed as fauna before.
There was a scrawny, tiny, little girl watching me from beside the dumpster.
She couldn’t have been more than three or four years old with a great unruly mass of blond curly hair and big blue eyes staring up at me in the muted glow of the streetlight.
My blood ran cold as we stood there staring at each other. Of all the things I worried about and planned for, this was completely beyond the pail. I wanted to turn and run away before her parents or the cops showed up, but, something about her held me there.
Something in her earnest gaze made me want to help.
She stepped out slowly into the alley shivering violently. The only thing she had on was a thin lilac footy pajama with some sort of fuzzy cartoon character embossed on the front.
Without thinking, I took off my coat and moved to wrap it around her.
“Jesus. Honey, are you OK? Where are your parents?”
To my surprise she didn’t shy away. She just sighed, tilting her head to the side as she settled into the warmth of my jacket. Her gaze never left mine as I kneeled down in front of her.
“She won’t listen,” the girl said, quietly.
The resignation in her voice tugged at my heart. If she were older I’d have thought that she’d fled an argument. But, as little as she was, it occurred to me that she didn’t have the vocabulary i to properly convey the situation.
“Who won’t listen, honey, your mommy?”
She nodded. Tears formed in her eyes.
I glanced around the alley. Something heavy had to have gone down for this little girl to be out wandering around in her pajamas.
The question was whether I wanted to involve myself in that situation.
I looked back to see the tears streaming down her cheeks. The haunted look in her eyes tugged at me with the pull of tiny black holes. I was already involved.
There was no way I could leave her here.
“What’s your name child?”
“Raina,” she said. Her little eyes widened with surprise like no one had ever asked before.
“It’s nice to meet you Raina. I’m Art. Do you think you could take me to your mommy, sweetie? Maybe I can get her to listen,” or get my dumb ass arrested, or worse.
She nodded solemnly taking my hand to walk quickly on short little legs, my coat scraping across the top of the snow. She led me out of the opposite end of the alley to a door on the back of the building where the dumpster rested. I was glad I’d found her when I did, close to home, before the elements had a chance to do damage.
In this weather it wouldn’t have taken long for frostbite to set in.
When she opened the thin ram-shackle screen door to enter, I hesitated. The main door stood wide open and it was quiet inside. I guessed her mother was asleep and the little girl got bored and just wandered away. If that was the case, I wasn’t about to invite myself in for a visit. I was just happy to get the little girl safely back indoors.
With a bit of luck, I could get back to my car and out of town before anyone came around.
The little girl held a firm grip on my fingers when I stopped and turned to look up at me.
“I can’t go in there with you, honey. You’ve got to in and find your mommy. Everything will be all right.”
She looked up at me and shook her head. “She did the bad thing. She won’t listen.” She tugged at my fingers trying to pull me across the threshold.
There was something about her persistence that gave me pause. As I stood in the doorway, I wanted nothing more than to flee and save my own sorry skin. It was what I did best. But, it occurred to me that something might really be wrong. This little girl needed my help. It was too late to turn back now.
I knocked loudly on the door frame, loudly. “Ma’am, I found your daughter outside in the alley. Is everything all right?”
There was no response.
The little girl tugged on me to come inside and reluctantly, I did. I had come this far and I had to see it through, this girl was worth far more than the couple hundred dollars of stuff I was carrying around.
As the little girl led me into the living room, my heart sank. Lying in the corner of couch was the little girl’s mommy, ash gray and dead. She had a needle stuck in her thin, bruised, arm. Beside her on the couch was an open square of black-smeared aluminum foil and a burnt pewter teaspoon.
It was heroin.
I picked the little girl up in my arms and held her close as I moved to stand over the body. The little girl was the spitting image of her mother. Her mother had the same mass of unruly blonde hair and big blue eyes. Eyes that now stared over my shoulder into oblivion.
“Oh, baby girl, I am so sorry.”
I took the girl into the kitchen and sat down with her on my lap as I planned my next move.
The whole arc of the evening seemed completely surreal. Here I was out for a night of honest thievery and now I was in the apartment of a dead junkie with her beautiful, presumably orphaned, daughter sitting on my lap.
“Can I have juice?”
“Sure, sweetie,” I said, standing up with her on my hip. I found a bottle of grape juice inside the fridge and a cup with a lid in the drainer beside the sink. As we sat back down she nestled softly into my shoulder and drank her juice, thankfully unaware of the madness surrounding her. I leaned forward in the chair and rocked her gently until she fell asleep.
As I sat there holding her in my arms, a terrible rage rose up inside me. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could find that shit more important than this precious little girl. How could someone so blessed risk throwing it all away for a cheap high? The hate I felt spilled slowly from my eyes as I sat there numb, watching her sleep.
I don’t know how long I sat there but eventually I knew it was time to go. Raina needed to be taken somewhere where she would be safe.
I took her to her bedroom, kissing her on the forehead as I wrapped her up in her blankets. My only hope was that there was some kind of family out there who would love her. She deserved a better life than the one she’d started with.
I stood freezing in the shadows across the street from the apartment as the cops and ambulance rolled in. When they brought the little girl out she was still wrapped up in my coat. I could see her looking around as they put her in the back of an ambulance. As I walked away into the darkness and back to my own lonely life I took solace in the thought that she had been looking for me.