The morning dawned clear and cold over the city. Frost clinging to the bricks on the sides of the buildings sparkled in the rays of the rising sun as it peeked through the thin wisps of fog that lay in isolated patches over the city. Beneath the unblemished blue sky down in a back alley, a pile of discarded newspapers began to shift as a small figure stirred beneath them. At first the movements were subtle, but then a tattered running shoe appeared from under the mound of newspapers. Then another foot appeared and finally, a small dirty young hand came into view and moved the upper layers of newspaper to one side.
Blinking his eyes against the morning sun, Jamie shivered as he slowly stretched his legs to get some sensation back into them. The temperature at night was getting far too cold for him now to be sleeping outdoors but as his stomach growled he knew that was the least of his problems. There had been nothing to eat yesterday but the day before that Jamie had been lucky and found a cold discarded hamburger in the dumpster behind a fast-food restaurant. Not exactly Haute cuisine but Jamie had been in no position to be discriminating. Perhaps today he might do better. Christmas was rapidly approaching and he hoped that meant people might be more approachable to a plea for some spare change. Jamie knew, however, that soon he was going to have to get money for food - one way or another. The prospect made him shudder as it always did.
Jamie picked up his old battered canvas backpack that held everything he owned and checked inside. His things were still there. One never knew on the streets what might happen during the night. Twelve years old, short, and slim, Jamie did not provide the intimidating presence that might deter those in even more desperate circumstances than himself. Although lacking in physical size, Jamie had one advantage that most people living on the street did not, he kept his eyes open and he used his head. There were ways to keep out of trouble other than busting heads and Jamie made full use of his innate intelligence. Jamie had never heard of Sun Tsu but nevertheless, he instinctively understood the value in remaining invisible and observing.
Yesterday he had tried the business district downtown, but that had not proven very fruitful. It had been a long hard day of working the passersby and Jamie only had fifty-eight cents to show for it. Together with what he already had in his pocket that came to a total of seventy-two cents. It was clear that food in any meaningful sense was still going to be some time off in the future.
Jamie decided that today he would try his luck at the North Road Mall. He knew that the best time to catch people was midday when they were in a hurry to get something to eat and then get back to work. If he appealed to their sympathy, he would often be able to convince them to part with a coin or two. Jamie had learnt quickly that the best way was never to ask for too much at one time, but instead to try for something small. While the amount he might get from any one person would not be very large, the chances of making a successful appeal were much better. If not the Christmas shoppers then maybe some of the business traffic from the office tower next to the mall might be willing to be generous with their spare change. Jamie had managed some success at the mall in the past and so he decided to try it again.
Shouldering his backpack Jamie began to walk in the direction of the mall. It would take a couple of hours at least to get there, but time was the one commodity that Jamie had in abundance. Taking a bus to cover the distance more quickly was not even a consideration. The price of a bus ride would more than cover the cost of getting something to fill the aching hunger inside him, but Jamie knew from long experience that he had to conserve his meagre funds for absolute necessities. Luxuries like bus rides might come someday, but not today. Jamie had no idea how or when things might change for the better, but he was determined that one way or another he would survive.
The cold winter wind was picking up speed, but unfortunately, his jacket was thin and had seen better days. This, combined with his hunger, chilled him through to the bone. Jamie tried to walk faster to warm himself up, but the lack of food meant his energy level was quite low. Wrapping his arms around himself to try and keep warm, he pushed on against the blowing wind. The clear sky meant that it would warm up a bit during the day, but tonight when the sun went down it was going to be bitterly cold. Jamie realized that he was going to have to find somewhere warmer to stay at night very soon. He had tried a public shelter once about a month ago during a particularly cold night, but that had just led to them calling the Department of Child Welfare. In Jamie's experience, Child Welfare's solution to everything was to simply send him back home and suggest that the family get counselling. With what had been happening to him at home being the reason that he had originally run away it hardly made things better. Passing by a school Jamie could see children his own age running and laughing as they headed into the building for their classes. He briefly considered going in to get warm, but with so many people watching and monitoring the children Jamie knew that he would be spotted very quickly and therefore it would be pointless.
Jamie walked on through a residential district and continued heading east. Another hour and he would finally be at the mall complex. King Edward Park was only a few blocks ahead now. Jamie loved the tall trees in the park that seemed to reach all the way up to the sky. The oasis of green was like an island in the middle of a vast sea of concrete and asphalt. The city lapped at the edges of the park, but was kept at bay by the small protected remnant of what remained of the original forest that had once covered the area where the city now stood.
Jamie walked into the park and the dense underbrush combined with the canopy provided by the trees began to gradually deaden the sounds of the city until eventually, it became totally silent. The stillness of the park was broken only by the occasional cries of birds or the scurrying about of squirrels and other small animals. Sometimes Jamie liked to stop and watch the squirrels as they ran about hunting for food. A few times he had tried to approach them, but they had always been too skittish and ran away whenever he would get too close. Going along a narrow pathway through the park Jamie could see the sun peeking through, casting faint beams of light between the trunks of the great towering trees. Walking along the meandering pathway through the park he wished that he could live in a place like this. To be able to live somewhere far away from the noise of the city, far away from the problems he dealt with every day, far away from the back alleys that he slept in at night, far away from where he was hungry, but most especially far away from certain other things.
Eventually, Jamie emerged on the other side of the park and he could finally see the outline of the mall and the office tower next to it in the distance. As Jamie got closer, he turned and walked towards the subway station that adjoined the mall rather than the actual mall itself. Jamie had learnt the hard way that if he were actually on mall property, he would have problems with the security guards there. However, Jamie knew a good spot on the overhead walkway that connected the subway station, the office tower, and the mall with each other. In addition to plenty of foot traffic, which increased the chances of finding someone in a generous mood, it was on transit property. Transit police only complained if you caused a disturbance or obstructed foot traffic. The security guards at the mall, however, would often go after someone simply as a means to liven up their otherwise boring and tedious jobs.
Jamie found his spot, let his backpack slip off his shoulder onto the ground, and sat down next to it. These days all too many bored teenagers from the suburbs viewed panhandling as simply an alternative source of income or lifestyle and were found on many a street corner with their hands out. Jamie could spot these with just a casual glance and viewed them with disdain. While they might think it an interesting way to while away the day, for Jamie it was not a reaction to boredom or his way of rebelling against parents, society, or some other perceived oppressor. In Jamie's case, it was simple survival. A bit of change coaxed from a passerby was quite simply the difference between eating and going hungry for another day. If that failed and Jamie could find nothing to eat in the dumpsters, then he had to resort to other methods in order to eat. If he was unsuccessful today he might have to do that again. The knowledge of what might lie ahead of him did nothing to warm Jamie's heart as he sat down on the cold cement at the entrance to the subway station. He put his hand out and began to scan the crowds of people walking past him.
Graham Martin picked up his briefcase and headed for the elevator. His computer's appointment calendar had beeped at him and it was time to get moving if he was going to make it on time to his meeting downtown. Graham straightened his tie and put on his overcoat as he walked towards the bank of elevators that would take him down from the twenty-third floor of the office tower to ground level.
Graham had never been a big fan of meetings, but ever since he had been moved into his new position a year ago as a Senior Consultant at National Computer Systems, life seemed to have turned into an endless series of them. At times it seemed to Graham that some people seemed incapable of working on even the simplest tasks without calling a meeting.
While Graham did not always like it, meetings were a fact of life in the corporate world and Graham knew that if his career were to continue they were just one part of the price he had to pay. From time-to-time, Graham wondered what the point of it all was. Did he need more money? Graham's tastes were not extravagant and he had saved his money all his life and had enough in the bank to take care of himself if he were to make the final decision to retire. In fact, he had just finished paying off the little retirement house that he had bought in the fall of the previous year. Was he interested in the power or the prestige of having a corner office someday? While Graham did not especially like being the object of manipulation by his boss, he had no desire to exercise that sort of control over others. As for an office, Graham had long since become used to the cubicle maze that was a permanent feature in all companies. Despite this, however, Graham knew that something was missing and work did not seem to be providing the answer. Unfortunately, he had not been able to figure out what the answer was - yet. The weekends he spent out of town at his retirement house were certainly calm and relaxing. Perhaps spending the Christmas holidays there would help clear his mind and he could finally figure it all out.
The elevator doors opened on the ground floor of the office tower and Graham went out of the main lobby through the revolving doors and into the cold mid-morning December air. The tall black glass office tower loomed large behind him and cast a sharp shadow on the ground from the weak winter sun that hung low in the sky. Graham stopped a moment to slip on his gloves to keep his hands warm against the cold and adjusted the scarf around his neck. Then he began to move towards the walkway over the street that would take him to the subway station so he could get to the offices of NCS's newest client where the meeting would be held.
A new deal was brewing and Graham's boss had sent him off to complete negotiations on the final terms before it was signed off. Yet another company was going to sign over their computer operations to NCS in the hopes of saving money and Graham had been assigned one of the key roles in bringing the final deal together. Some of the client company's employees would be offered positions and continue in their present jobs, others would be laid off and their functions handled by already existing centralized NCS staff. All to the greater glory of an enhanced corporate balance sheet. Hopefully, this would be the case for the client, but definitely and always for NCS. Graham had been on the receiving end of the same change several years ago at the company where he had previously worked. Fortunately, Graham had been one of the lucky ones and had been offered a position with NCS that enabled him to stay on. Now it was going to be someone else's turn in the corporate sausage grinder. Part of Graham knew that this was how the business world operated, but part of him also felt uncomfortable at being a part of something that was shortly going to cause distress for the people working in the client's computer operations division.
The walkway from the office tower to the subway station was crowded, as it always was, but Graham was not worried. Being the perennially organized type, he had left early so no matter what might happen, there was little chance of being late. Graham's view was that it was better to arrive early and perhaps have to stroll around a bit before presenting himself at reception rather than to dash at the last minute and likely forget something. It also meant that he could walk at a regular pace and not have to run and arrive out of breath. With Graham now on the cusp of retirement age, the latter reason was also taking increasing precedence over the former.
Graham moved along the walkway through the throng of foot traffic. He was not hurrying, but not moving slowly either, when he heard a young-sounding voice say, "Please, sir, can you spare a quarter so I can get something to eat?"
Graham groaned inwardly and sighed. Graham felt he had heard that phrase or its equivalent a thousand times in the past few months - well, a dozen times anyway. Lately, it seemed practically every corner in town had someone sitting on it with their hand out. He had business to do and wanted to get going, but something about this particular voice commanded Graham's attention and his eyes briefly flicked downwards and to the right.
He could not have been more than eleven, perhaps twelve years of age, although it was difficult to actually say. Crouched down on the cement, he was mostly hidden by a jacket that was clearly not suited for the season. The ubiquitous baseball cap, that all boys seemed to own, was pulled down over his eyes. Most people would not have known exactly what to make of this youngster with his hand held out. Street urchin or panhandler-in-training, there was something about Jamie that instantly captured Graham's full attention.
Graham quickly took in the youngster before him. He was young, far too young to be asking for money for food - that alone was out of place. There was, of course, the dirty face and the streaks on it running downwards from long-dried tears, but what Graham noticed, above all else, were the bruise marks on the left side of the boy's face. This was clearly not the usual bored teenager from the suburbs trying to squeeze a bit of money out of soft-headed passers-by. The customary indicators were missing here: the relatively clean clothes, the designer running shoes in good repair, and instead of the paper coffee cup sitting on the sidewalk with a few stage-prop coins already in it, there was a small, empty, dirty hand being held out.
Graham's mind shifted into emergency high speed for a split-second and a decision was made. It was going to make him late for the meeting and he would have to come up with some excuse to explain it, but a youngster who clearly needed help, and who had been hurt was something that Graham could not ignore. Something he could not simply walk past and later be able to look at himself in the mirror. Graham had no illusions about his significance in the grand scheme of things, but there were some basic fundamentals if one wanted to remain a member of the human race.
Graham stopped and knelt down next to Jamie. As he did, Jamie moved back sideways along the cement wall he had been sitting next to, unsure what Graham's motives were. Seeing Jamie's nervousness Graham backed up slightly and said gently, "Hi there. Can I help you?"
Jamie did not see any menace in Graham's face and so he repeated his forlorn plea, "Could you spare a quarter, please, so I can get something to eat?"
"Has it been a long time since you've eaten?" Graham asked.
"I had something on Tuesday," Jamie said with a sniffle. Graham did the mental arithmetic - two days ago. Immediately, Graham knew he had made the right decision. Was it likely to be the officially supported corporate decision for a businessman on his way to an important meeting for a potential new seven-figure contract? Hardly, but it was the only decision that a man like Graham could make. The only one he could accept and be able to sleep at night.
"Instead of just a quarter, how would you like to come with me and I'll buy you something to eat?" Graham asked Jamie, while placing his hand against the cement wall and slowly standing back up.
Jamie looked up and Graham got his first good look at him as Jamie's face came completely into view. Peeking out from underneath the old stained baseball cap, Graham could see dark brown hair with blond highlights and a face that was gaunt. What was most noticeable about Jamie, however, were his piercing blue eyes. Jamie appeared scared, but at the same time, he looked back at Graham with a strength that might have been interpreted by some as defiance. Grimy he might have been and definitely in need of a good meal, but ordinary he was not. Graham saw Jamie look him over carefully before nodding and standing up next to him.
After Jamie stood up, Graham could see the full extent of the bruises on the side of his face and there were some around his neck as well. The bruising looked recent and painful.
"You've been hurt," said Graham, as he took a closer look.
"I'll be OK," said Jamie, putting his hand up to cover the side of his face. The bruises had come only a few days before from a man that had promised Jamie a meal if he came along with him. While Jamie knew that there were some things he had to endure in order to eat, being choked to the point of unconsciousness was not one of them. Fortunately, a delivery truck had driven into the back alley while Jamie was struggling to get loose, and the man had run off to avoid discovery.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you. I was just concerned," said Graham. "Please come, and I'll get you something to eat."
Jamie relaxed a bit and put his hand down but remained wary and ready to run if it became necessary. Graham sensed this and smiled while motioning with his arm for Jamie to come along with him. Jamie slipped his arms through the straps of his backpack, adjusted it, and began to follow Graham towards the entrance of the mall.
The North Road Mall, which was connected to the subway station and office tower by overhead walkways, was a massive shopping complex, complete with the traditional food court. Food courts exemplified the concept of modern mechanized cuisine in Graham's opinion. Everything standardized, homogenized, vitamin-enhanced, and pre-packaged for your convenience, but nevertheless lacking the essence of what real food was. However, in a pinch overly processed calories, even from a factory, were better than nothing, and the need was clearly urgent. While they walked towards the mall, Graham took a few more glances at the boy walking next to him and suspected that proper food and regular meals were not something Jamie had been acquainted with for some time; his face was far too thin.
Once they had passed through the bank of glass doors at the mall's entrance, Graham noticed Jamie's eyes darting about as if watching for something. Suddenly, as they were walking along, Jamie huddled into himself, his head turned down into his chest, and it was quite clear he was trying very hard to be invisible. Graham carefully looked about and quickly spotted the cause. A mall security guard was cruising in the vicinity and was walking in their general direction. Surmising that security guards had harassed Jamie on more than one occasion, Graham moved quickly to position himself between Jamie and the approaching danger. Shifting position smoothly as they walked along, Graham succeeded in providing cover for Jamie as the guard passed by them only a dozen feet away.
After the guard had passed, Jamie relaxed and looked up. Graham wiggled an eyebrow in recognition of what they both knew he had done.
"You'll be OK," said Graham. "I'll take care of you."
A smile and a quick flash of gleaming white teeth were Graham's thanks and he felt amply rewarded. As smiles went, it was not a big one, definitely not the kind that would ever get into the record books. Nevertheless, it was an authentic one, and Graham sensed that the boy next to him had had little to smile about lately. Did he mean what he had just said to Jamie? It was only five little words, but, at that moment, Graham knew that he meant it more seriously than anything he had said to someone in a long time.
They soon arrived at the food court, a glaring spectacle of neon, noise, and confusion as the outlets began to open for the shoppers wanting breakfast before emptying their wallets in the stores. Graham looked around the large open area and then followed Jamie's gaze towards a hamburger outlet.
"Here we are," said Graham. "What would you like to have?"
"Just an ordinary hamburger is OK," Jamie replied carefully, while looking back towards Graham. The internal conflict on Jamie's face was all too apparent to Graham. Jamie clearly needed something substantial to eat, but, at the same time, he was worried that if he asked for too much, Graham might get upset and walk off and leave him with nothing.
"Sounds good to me. Let's get in line," said Graham, trying to put the nervous boy next to him at ease.
They walked over towards the counter of the local burger chain that Jamie had been looking at and stood behind several people who were already waiting. Jamie hung slightly behind Graham so he was not totally visible, but kept a close watch on what Graham was doing. When they got to the front of the line, Graham proceeded to order a deluxe breakfast as well as a double-beef hamburger combo, both of which were advertised on a sign hanging overhead.
"Do you want that jumbo-sized?" asked the counter clerk automatically, while ringing in the order.
"Yes please," replied Graham, while handing over a twenty-dollar bill and then, moments later, collecting the change.
The clerk disappeared into the back and shortly reappeared with a filled tray and slid it across the countertop. Graham thanked the clerk, picked up the tray loaded down with food, and moved away from the counter. He looked over towards the seating area and mentally picked out a table towards the back that was up against a wall. Graham nodded towards the location, and then Jamie and he navigated their way through the sea of people towards it. Sensing Jamie's nervousness, Graham had selected the spot so they would be away from the crowds and the noisiest part of the food court.
Graham sat down and motioned for Jamie to take the seat against the wall so he could watch the activities in the food court. Graham had watched enough old movies to know the importance of the so-called gunfighter's seat, and he judged from Jamie's nervousness that it was likely that Jamie would not be comfortable with his back to the crowd. Jamie nodded, removed his backpack, and sat down with it positioned safely in between himself and the table.
"Help yourself," Graham said with a smile to Jamie as he pushed the breakfast plate towards the young boy who was staring with ill-disguised hunger at the collection of food laid out before him. Jamie hesitated for a moment, then not sensing any disapproval from Graham, grabbed the plastic knife and fork and attacked the breakfast in front of him. He had inhaled approximately half of it in a matter of moments when politeness finally managed to catch up with hunger. "Thank you very much, sir," he said, in between rapid mouthfuls.
Graham smiled at Jamie and nibbled on a couple of french fries while he watched the youngster make short work of the rest of the breakfast that he was eating. All too soon it had vanished and Jamie proceeded to make his container of orange juice evaporate.
"Would you like some more?" Graham asked while pushing the hamburger combo towards Jamie.
"But, that's for you, isn't it?" asked Jamie surprised at being offered the burger that he had assumed Graham had bought for himself.
"No, I was actually on my way to a meeting. I got it all for you," Graham replied.
"Gee, thanks a lot. I was so hungry. I guess you could tell, couldn't you?" said Jamie, lowering his head with some embarrassment while reaching for the hamburger.
"I thought you might be," said Graham, smiling back as Jamie grinned in between bites as he slowed down his eating slightly. "Besides," he continued, "I couldn't go on and just leave you sitting there like that. I could never do a thing like that to a nice boy like you."
The words had come out of Graham's mouth without thinking and the moment they had Graham realized he had said the wrong thing. This was a boy on the streets that he was talking to and every word Graham spoke was being weighed and measured for hidden meanings. Hearing Graham's words, Jamie looked at him closely and Graham felt Jamie's eyes drill deep into him. It was as if he was being X-rayed and both Graham and Jamie knew it was taking place. Graham realized that Jamie was suspecting his motives and was examining his soul but then Jamie relaxed and the moment passed.
Jamie had dealt with men before and he knew what they were like. In his experience, they were frequently abusive and always, always, wanting something from him and the possibility of food or money would be dangled to get it. For a moment he felt certain that this sudden gift of food from a stranger he had just met was simply the same old pattern again. Jamie looked at the man across from him and stared carefully into Graham's eyes, but there was nothing there. Not the barely concealed lust he had seen many times in the past nor the look of contempt and disgust that others tried unsuccessfully to hide from him while professing to care. All that he could sense was worry and concern. This was not the usual sort of man that he had dealt with since he had first been forced out onto the streets.
"I'm sorry, but I can't stay any longer. I have a meeting downtown that I have to go to," said Graham, and he regretted saying it the moment he did. Jamie's face, which had brightened somewhat as he ate, clouded over once again.
"I was on my way there when I saw you and I just couldn't keep going," continued Graham trying to explain.
"That's OK," mumbled Jamie through a mouthful of french fries as he now hurriedly tried to finish up the remains of the food in front of him. He knew if he ate fast enough, he might be able to get it all down and then be OK for another day or two before he would have to find food again, perhaps in another much less pleasant way. If only he could eat fast enough.
Watching Jamie rapidly pushing the food into his mouth Graham suddenly realized what was happening and quickly said "No, please don't rush. Take your time."
Jamie slowed a bit but did not cease his chewing and swallowing of the french fries. Graham then took a deep breath and put into words what had been bubbling inside him since he had taken Jamie into the mall.
"I have to do this for my job or I'll be in big trouble with my boss. I'll be back in about three or four hours, probably late in the afternoon. If you were waiting where I first saw you, then maybe we could talk when I get back. Perhaps I might be able to do something to help you."
Jamie looked up from the table and looked Graham over carefully, but once again he did not sense any hidden agenda at work. Jamie did not believe that Graham was sincere in wanting to help him, but he had learnt to gauge men fairly quickly, his life often depended on it. He had not been wrong very often, but something about Graham appeared to be different. Graham did not seem like the others that Jamie had been forced to endure in order to survive.
"OK, maybe," Jamie mumbled, while looking down again and continuing to eat.
"I do want to help, but I also have to run or I'll be late," said Graham.
"It's OK," Jamie said. It was not like it was the first time men had given him something and then wanted to vanish. Although something about Graham's manner did feel different to Jamie.
Graham rose up from the table. He felt like a total heel. Here was a boy who was obviously in distress and needing help. How could he go and leave him like this? Certainly, there was the business meeting he needed to get to, but what was that compared to the life of a youngster? Graham knew rationally that he had no choice, but his emotions were tearing at him. He knew he was not going to be able to live with what he was about to do, but at the same time, he knew he had to live up to his responsibilities at the office.
"Please be there when I get back. I'll do whatever it takes to help you," Graham pleaded, as he left. However, Graham felt in his heart that he would probably never see the boy again. Graham also knew that he was never going to be able to forgive himself for leaving, even if he did not really have a choice. He hoped that the boy would be there when he returned, but he knew that it was a forlorn hope as he hurried back towards the mall exit.
As Graham ran out of sight, Jamie remained sitting at the table and watched him dodge through people as he headed towards the exit doors. While Jamie watched and finished off the last of the french fries, the streaks beneath his eyes grew wet once again.