I have always been here. I have always been on the streets, on the run, or just simply down on my luck. There was never a time where I didn’t have to walk up and down the corners for change and food, only to receive mostly ugly glares and hateful words beckoning for me to “get a job” or “get off the drugs”. I never touched a drug and if I could get myself a job – if anyone would hire someone who looked like me – please believe I would take it in a heartbeat. It’s not as easy as you think. It’s tough to prepare for an interview when you get kicked out of gas station bathrooms for trying to wash up or have your bag stolen from the shelter while you slept. But this is the life I lead.
Or rather the life I led, until recently.
My family life wasn’t great. Hell, it wasn’t even ‘ok’. I can sort of remember my mother, with her short, wiry hair, making me breakfast in the morning, swearing up and down at every little thing that would stand in her way – but not in determination. No, she swore because she loathed the idea of having to provide for someone other than herself and I simply wasn’t old enough, at the ripe age of six, to make myself a meal other than cereal – and after eating cereal for ten or eleven days in a row, your stomach starts to hurt and you ask for something else. She hated it. I know my name was mixed in with all the swearing. She wasn’t exactly shy about that nor did she try to hide it.
I never knew my dad. My mother wasn’t about to keep his ugly past away from me either. I knew by the time I was seven that he was a “dirty rotten toothless bastard” and a “worthless running son of a bitch”. As I got older, I understood deeper that my dad was using heroin, just like my mother, and had left both of us as soon as my mother told him that she was having me. She hadn’t seen him since; said he must have hopped one of those CSX trains or something because she knew he didn’t have enough money for a bus ticket. I always liked to think he was still in the city, somewhere, wandering around. Maybe even looking for me. I’d like to think, at that young stage in life, that he was putting up signs, asking people if they had seen his boy. As I got older, I knew I was wrong. He wasn’t coming back.
When I was nine, my mother overdosed and died. I remember looking at her as she laid on the mattress in the vacant house we stayed in and I knew even before the ambulance showed up that she was gone too. I was told that I could run to the corner store and use the pay phone for free if it was for 911, but I could only use it for the ambulance, not for the police. I was raised to know that the police were the bad guys and that if I was ever to run into an officer, I was to run as fast as I could and never to let them catch me. My mother instilled such good qualities in me as a boy. So when my mother didn’t wake up, I made my way to the corner bodega, said hi to the clerk, and used the phone to call for the fire department. They came within ten minutes, which is stunningly fast for this city.
When they saw the conditions I was living in and realized how bad the situation was, they didn’t even bother asking me any questions. Before I knew what was happening, I was swept up by one of the boys in blue I had been afraid of for my entire life and put in the back of a squad car. When I got to the station they asked me a bunch of questions and gave me some food. I could see so much pity in the eyes of the other people in the station, which was completely new to me, and realized that they wanted to help – even the police.
It took about a year for me to get into a proper foster home across the state. I hated it there almost more than living with my mother. The lady, Mrs. Habben, was kinder than Mr. Habben, but both were cruel and punishing. They would beat me if I acted out, which every ten-year-old boy did, only Mrs. Habben would sometimes cry afterwards. She knew the monster that she was. Unfortunately, Mr. Habben wasn’t so self-aware.
After a particularly difficult night when I was fourteen, I decided to make a run for it. I grabbed what few things I had and snuck out the window, and, just like my father presumably did, I jumped on the closest moving train and hoped it would get me back into the city. I suppose luck was on my side, as it took me just a mile or so out of town. It was a strange relief being back in what seemed familiar, even if it was such a devastating place for me to recall. I walked to the east side of town and back to the group of lots where I stayed in the years before. The buildings were gone. I can assume that something like my mother’s death was enough for the city to say ‘enough’ and knock the rundown buildings to the ground. The rubble remained. I remember spending a few minutes sitting on the brick and stone, kicking dirt around and thinking. It was the most closure I was going to have, so I soaked it in the best I could.
I wandered around town, hitting the corners, stopping and begging without much luck when my feet would get tired. I had to be careful because, even though I looked way older than my age, I could still be picked up by police and they would simply return me to the Habbens – and the beating that would be awaiting me. Every cop car I saw would cause me to walk swiftly down the road or jump behind some median barrier to avoid them. I did this for four years until I was eighteen.
And that what the year I met Sammy.
One night when I was walking back towards the overpass I was staying under that week, I heard voices behind me. There were three men, just a few years older than I was, walking towards me rather quickly. They had their hands in their pockets, except for one who had his hand up under his coat. I started to pick up my pace, but they matched my speed. In a matter of seconds, we were all running, them chasing me down, as fast as we could. I could feel my chest expanding as every breath went in. I was in terrible shape and my health was poor overall, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away from them for long. Without much thought, I slid into the basement window of another vacant house that someone had pulled the plywood from, hoping they would just run past. They did not. I crouched in the dark corner of the room, everything around me black. I could hear them searching the room, kicking around the empty bottles and bricks. I wanted to make it back to the window, but I could see the silhouettes of the men flash against the dim light from the night sky coming in from it, certainly blocking my way. I held my breath and waited.
Then a scream.
One of the men was hollering and swearing like mad. Something about his leg and he thought that something had bit him. Then a crunching sound. Then another. The screams of the one man died down as I saw the other two attempt to make it out of the window. Whatever was in the darkness pulled the second one down. I could see the shadowy hand reach up over his back, extending its thin long arm, grab his hair, and pull him back into window, folding his body in half as it reentered the room through the two foot by three foot hole. My heart sank to my stomach. This thing wasn’t human. His screaming ceased in only a few seconds after a few more crunching sounds.
I cowered in the corner, waiting for my turn to come. I wasn’t even going to try to run from this thing, whatever it was. I knew better. There was a moment of silence before, at my feet, I felt warm wet cloth. I could hear the wet cloths being thrown on top of one another, all in front of me. I reached down, trembling, and picked up the clothes. They were soaked and I knew it was all blood. I dropped the clothes, only to have them pushed closer to me. I picked them up again, feeling as though I didn’t have a choice.
“What do I do with these?” I asked into the dark, my voice shaking uncontrollably.
Something pulled them from my hands and ruffled them around. The sound of squishing and tearing made my stomach churn. Then the creature grabbed my wrist. I could tell it was emaciated and withers. The skin was tightly wrapped around the bone with no muscles whatsoever. It pulled my hand out and placed in it two squares of leather. Wallets. It pushed them into my chest and then I heard it scurry back to another corner of the room. I simply said, “Thank you,” and started towards the window. I stepped out and stood on the sidewalk, staring back into the dark. I knelt down again and quietly repeated myself.
The next morning I woke up and checked the gift from this terrifying stranger. The wallets had a few dollars in them and some ID of the two men. I recall the police reports on the news saying that they were missing, but nobody ever found them.
Or the others.
But Sammy was always there. Every time I needed to get away from a sticky situation – any time I was bothered by the thieves or muggers, which happened way more often than you could imagine, I would just lead them back home for Sammy to take care of. He appreciated the meals and I certainly appreciated the leftovers. I no longer felt miserable out on the streets. The income was steady and, though it’s not what I would typically want to do to provide for myself, I felt safe for the first time in my life. If ever I was bothered by the terrors of the streets, all I had to do was run.
And introduce them to my good friend, Sammy.