The sunset cast a surreal light over the city, hiding most of the visible scars and masking the violence that permeated daily life. Most, but not all. Partially collapsed and burnt-out husks, harsh reminders of the Great War, dotted the cityscape and no amount of darkness could hide devastation of that magnitude.
The old man stood on a rooftop looking over the gray and ravaged city. He’d been looking for someone to carry on his work. So far he had failed.
One mistake does not erase a lifetime of good, he thought miserably. I will find the right one.
I looked up to see a hand extended towards me. I followed it up to the care-lined face of an elderly man. He was old, but I swear he shone with more life than someone half his age. I hesitated before accepting his outreached hand. I had accepted help before much to my chagrin. The humanity of people was all but gone, wiped away in the disgusting displays of greed and avarice that was pervasive in most aspects of life in this dismal city. In my fifteen years of life, I learned that it was a dog eat dog world out there.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” the old man said. “Only offering a helping hand.”
“Helping you is simply my way of helping me.”
“Take my hand and I’ll tell you about it.”
Seeing nothing to lose, I let the old man help me up. I’d been beaten and robbed sometime in the last few hours. It was hard to tell how long I had lain in the street, because my head was a bloody mass of hurt. I half-heartedly brushed some of the dirt off my clothes and noticed a new rip in my pants at the knee. I hopped on my good leg trying to keep my balance while I looked for my crutch.
“That’s mine over there,” I said, pointing to the crutch lying in a puddle of filthy water.
“I have something better than that,” the old man said, turning and rooting around in the shopping cart he’d been pushing along the street.
He turned back to me with a cane in his hand. It was gleaming wood with carvings along its length capped with a small silver-looking fist. I didn’t recognize any of the words or pictograms. Didn’t matter much, I figured I could sell it after the old man left me. Food was scarce and I’d hobble along a lot better on a full stomach.
“Thanks, but why are you giving this to me?” I asked, taking the cane from him. “What do you want?”
The old man looked me up and down and laughed.
“Boy, what’s a scrub like you possibly have that I’d want?”
“I don’t know, but everyone wants something.”
“You’ve already given me what I was looking for.”
I took a step back, glancing left and right.
“Don’t get all riled now. I simply meant that you allowed me the chance to help you out, even if it was only to get you on your feet.”
“What are you talking about? You crazy or something?”
“I’m talking about giving back, learning what it means to be truly alive. You can only experience life to its fullest by extending a helping hand.”
“Yeah, sure and then watch as it gets bitten off.”
“Yes, sometimes that happens, but when a gesture of help is accepted for what it is, then you learn what life is all about and you can pass that learning on.”
I rolled my eyes at the crazy old coot. He must have escaped from the psycho ward. From what I knew of people, they didn’t want a helping hand, they wanted what you had and you had better learn how to fight to keep what was yours. That’s what I’d learned of life in the streets.
I looked at his cart crammed full of junk wondering how long it would be before someone hit him on the head and robbed him blind. They had robbed me for nothing more than the few scraps of food I had begged for earlier in the day.
The old man turned and began to push his cart down the street.
“Wait, that’s it? You don’t want nothing for this cane?”
“Nope, it’s yours. Use it well.”
I watched him shuffle down the street. A little further along, he stopped and spoke to another drifter. Within moments, he shook his head, said a few more words, and kept moving down the street.
The squeal of brakes caught my attention and made me look past the old man to the street corner. A girl was being tossed out of sleek black car. I should have turned and walked the other way leaving the little twerp to her own fate, but I have a perverse sense of curiosity. I watched in morbid fascination.
The girl tumbled head over heels before coming to a painful stop on the uneven pavement. Her face looked bruised and her lip was bleeding.
“Next time, don’t be so stupid. You’re lucky that’s all I did to you,” a man said from inside the car before it sped away.
I saw her wipe her lip with her sleeve and stomp her foot in anger. I knew a system cop car when I saw it and I guessed she had been soliciting sex for food. Didn’t look like she would eat tonight. Most men liked softness and curves and she was angles and tomboy muscles.
The old man approached her.
“Can I help you up Miss?”
The girl jumped to her feet, pulling a stubby knife from her waistband.
“Stay away from me or I’ll slice you up good,” she said holding the knife up in front of her..
The old man laughed.
“Don’t think you’ll be doing much slicing with that puny blade.”
It looked like she was having the same trust issues I had earlier. She took two steps closer and held the blade up closer to him.
“Want to try your luck, old man?”
“I only wanted to help you to your feet. No need to spill my blood over a kindness.”
She hesitated before lowering the blade.
“Kindness will get you killed old man.”
“That may be so, but kindness can also change the world.”
It was the girl’s turn to laugh. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard anyone laugh like that and I grinned in spite of myself.
“You’re crazy. You’d best be careful who you try to help next time or you’ll feel a blade slice through your neck.”
She turned and started to walk away from the old man.
“Wait. I have something for you.”
“Don’t want nothing from you.”
“You might want this.”
I was shocked to see the old man holding a knife in his hand. Where did he get this stuff? The girl was looking over her shoulder at him. He pulled the knife out of its sheath. The blade shimmered in the light and she walked back to him.
The old man pushed the knife back into the sheath and held it out to her. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. My inner voice screamed that this couldn’t be good. No one ever gave anyone a break in this city and they certainly didn’t give away a valuable weapon without strings, but I couldn’t turn away.
“What’s your game old man?” she asked.
“No game, just want to help. Here, the blade is yours.”
“What do you want for it? Sex?”
“Nothing, Miss. Thought you might need better protection, that’s all. Here, take it.”
I inhaled sharply waiting to see what she would do. In the next instant, she snatched the blade from the old man’s outstretched hand.
“Good. Now you can take care of yourself,” he said.
He gave her a wink before turning away pushing his cart full of odds and ends down the street.
I was flabbergasted. The old man helped the little twerp, like he helped me. I began to wonder what he was up to. Maybe he was being nice cause he was playing some kind of twisted game.
Be nice, smile, help them, and then crush them like bugs.
Well, I was born on a weekend, but it wasn’t this weekend.
I took one final glance and found myself staring into the little twerp’s eyes. She was sort of pretty with pale eyes and shoulder length brown hair, but I’d had enough trouble for one day, so I turned and hobbled away. She would have to learn to survive like the rest of us. Beg, borrow or steal, that’s the motto on the street if you want to eat.