“What’s a pretty little girl like you doing out here?” the dirty man with rotten teeth asked me. Filthy clothes hung off him like they were ready to give up. He wore an old baseball cap to keep his matted hair pulled back from his face. I couldn’t count how many layers he wore under what looked like a windbreaker. I noticed several shirt collars around his neck, and a ratty pair of gloves that only covered up to the middle knuckle.
I didn’t say anything. I just pressed myself against the brick wall along the side of the dark alleyway and tried to disappear. It was cold and dark, even with the streetlight glowing down at the end of the alleyway where it opened onto the main road and the sidewalk. I didn’t belong here, and I certainly wasn’t going to entertain the locals.
“Hey, it’s not safe for people like you out here,” he continued.
People like me. “You used to be people like me,” I told him.
The old homeless man tilted his head, and it looked like he had tears in his eyes. “Here, let me help you out. It’s going to be cold out tonight,” he said, shuffling away to the fort made of cardboard boxes where he lived. I watched as he grabbed a few blankets and jackets.
I pulled the hood of my own coat over my head. Even though my coat was thick and padded, I still shivered from the cold. My jeans weren’t thick enough or warm enough to be out all night, especially not if I was trying to sleep on the street, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I had left the house without my purse, my keys, or my phone. There was no way to call anyone for help, no money for a room, nothing. There was just me, trying to cuddle against the outside brick wall of a building for warmth.
“Here you go, dear. Wrap this around you for warmth,” the old man said as he returned with a dingy old blanket.
I didn’t reach for it immediately, and he saw the hesitation in my eyes.
“It’s dry, it doesn’t stink too much, and it will keep you warm. I try to keep my house over there smelling good. I don’t want to stink like some of these guys out here,” he assured me with a hoarse little laugh that sounded more like a smoker’s cough.
I reached out cautiously and took the blanket from him. I held it up to my nose and sniffed it. It smelled like one of those tree-shaped car air fresheners. “Thank you,” I said as I pulled it up over me.
“Hey, it’s okay. Just for the night, okay? If you’re going to stay out here tomorrow, you’re going to need to find a box or two. I can help you get set up out here. If you can keep dry, it’s not so bad,” he said, smiling.
I had made a friend.
“It’s just for the night,” I told him. “I’ve got to figure something else out tomorrow.” If I hadn’t left Axel in such a hurry, there wouldn’t have been as much to figure out.
“One hell of a time to find yourself on the street, right here at Christmas. I’m sorry about your luck, lady. I don’t know why you’re here, and I don’t really care, but you let me know if you need anything tonight.” He turned around and started to shuffle back over to his little fort.
He was right. Christmas was a hell of a time to end up on the street, mainly because it was so damn cold. Luckily, it hadn’t rained much recently, so it was relatively dry out.
Christmas was a rough time anyway. I hated the holiday. Every year I could remember had been rough. I supposed there were years when I was little that had to have been good, but I couldn’t remember them.
My father died on Christmas one year. It was the first year that came through clearly in my memory. Instead of coming into the living room to find Santa Claus had been to our house, my brother and I woke to the sound of our mother talking to the police. We never saw the body. He had been removed from the house before we woke up.
After that, our family descended into poverty. Eventually, on another Christmas morning, our mother just disappeared. Once again, instead of celebrating a visit from Santa, we spent the day talking to the police. Well, I did. I made sure Peter was preoccupied with the toys that our mother had put under the tree for him before she left.
I never found out what happened to her. Social Services took us and put into the system. Luckily, we were able to go to the same foster home, where we grew up together. Christmases there were rough, too, but not because we were abandoned or because our foster family enjoyed dying on the holidays. No, instead, their favorite past time was beating the shit out of the little snot nosed brats who lived in the house with them – us.
I didn’t blame Peter when he joined the Army to get out of that prison. He came back whenever he had a chance. One year, he came back right before Christmas to let us know he was being deployed to fight in the Middle East. They were sending his unit over so a handful of guys could finally come home to see their families. I never saw Peter again.
Things got worse after my little brother disappeared, so I left and moved in with my boyfriend at the time. When I started living with the guys I went out with, there was never a shortage of beds. Guys were always willing to let me sleep over or move in with them.
Then, I met Axel, and for the first time in a long, long time, I felt like I had found something permanent. I should have known better. They all started the same way, as the perfect guy who wasn’t going to turn out to be anything like the rest. Then, after they got comfortable, after they got in my pants and we started saying I love you, it all went to shit.
It was almost Christmas again, and Axel had hauled off and hit me, sending me out of his house in such a rage that I left everything except the jacket I pulled from the coat rack by the front door on my way out. I didn’t want to spend Christmas on the street, but it honestly wouldn’t have been worse than any other Christmas.
“Hey,” I called out to my friend on the fort.
“Yeah,” he called back.
“What’s your name?” I asked him.
He sat up and crawled out of his fort. “They call me Major Ralph. I sort of look after folks out here. Once people know you know me, they don’t tend to bother you as much. Why? What’s your name?”
“Maggie,” I told him.
“It’s nice to meet you, Maggie. Now, look, it’s getting late. You need to keep your head and your voice down out here, got it?” he asked, warning me.
While I thought he sounded a little silly, I knew enough to know when to take someone’s advice, especially if they were more experienced than I was with a situation. I nodded and pulled the blanket back up to my shoulders. The ground beneath me was hard, but at least it was dry. I could not imagine having to sleep on wet pavement.
“How long have you been out here?” I asked him.
He put a finger to his chin and gazed off into the distance while he thought about his answer, obviously counting time in his head. “A few years. I can’t really remember how long it’s been. You’ll find that time moves a little differently when you don’t have to keep a schedule. Everything runs together if you let it.”
“I don’t plan on being out here long,” I said defiantly, as if announcing to the world that Maggie Evans was going to get back on her feet and get off the street.
“No one ever does, honey,” he assured me.
“I mean it. I just need a place to sleep for the night. Tomorrow I’m going to fix everything and get my life back on track.” I shivered under the blanket he gave me. I hoped I made it through the night to see tomorrow. I didn’t know how guys like Major Ralph did it for years at a time and managed to smile or to be helpful.
“Tonight, just try to focus on getting some sleep, Maggie,” he whispered as he crept back into his box.
I felt a little safer with Major Ralph nearby. At least there was somebody keeping an eye on the alleyway. The occasional car whooshed by on the main road, and there were a couple of other people lying along the walls. They’d been on the street so long they were starting to blend in. I didn’t want to end up like them.
I kept telling myself that when I got up in the morning, I would be able to reassess my choice of climate. I was going to have to find somewhere warmer to stay, and hopefully, somewhere a little less outdoorsy. I was going to have to find a way to get in touch with my friends from the real world and leave this world of alleyways and cardboard boxes behind in the land of nightmares, where it belonged.
Of course, I was also going to have to reassess my choice of men. No more winners. But they all started out as perfect. It was going to be hard to find someone who didn’t have a shithead jerk waiting just under the surface for me to find. I was starting to think there weren’t any men who weren’t like the ones I’d dated.
That was it. They were all jerks. I vowed to myself that once I got off the street, I was going to get on my own two feet without the help of another man who would just take advantage of me the first chance he got. They were all the same.
My anger warmed me underneath the blanket. I turned to face the brick wall, turning away from the alleyway and hiding my face. I tried to blend in just like the people who’d been out there forever. My clean clothes made me stand out like a sore thumb. My bright blue winter jacket was definitely out of place. I covered my new shoes and pulled my feet up underneath the blanket so no one would see them. I knew I would be lucky to make it through the night and keep my clothes.
I wrapped my arms tightly around myself and curled up, trying to take up as little space as possible. Eventually, as I focused on trying to sleep, the warmth of my anger faded, replaced by what little body heat I was able to maintain under the thin, dirty blanket. There was no way in hell I was going to allow myself to stay outside another night.
As the sound of traffic died down, it was replaced by other noises. There were people coughing and grumbling in their sleep. Someone snored comfortably, probably Major Ralph. I heard what sounded like animals rummaging through the dumpsters lining the sides of the alley. I tried not to listen too intently to the sounds around me, but everything was suddenly so much louder than it had been before. Every little movement. Every breath.
I put my head down against the ground and closed my eyes. I didn’t know what else to do to help myself finally get to sleep. Sleep was a reluctant partner, but I eventually drifted off, once exhaustion overpowered worry and the cold.