What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
“So what happened?”
“I woke up early. I had my watch and saw it was a little after six. It was just getting light. Maybe that’s what woke me up. Or the ground. It was hard, and I was stiff and sore. It took me a minute of stretching before I felt all right again. Then I realized I had to look presentable for school, and looking down at myself, I saw I was wearing dirty clothes that looked exactly like what they were, clothes that someone had slept in. Also, my hair was all matted down, I needed to brush my teeth, and most of all, I needed to pee.”
He paused for a second to take another sip of Josh’s coke, but Josh didn’t say anything, just kept watching him. Josh’s fascination with this boy was growing the longer he listened to him.
“Peeing was easy enough, and I realized I could change clothes, too. I was behind these trees, no one was around, so I simply took some clean clothes out of the duffle bag and changed into them. It felt a little odd, being outside in just my boxers for a few seconds, but no stranger than it did peeing out there. I even found I liked it.” He grinned, and Josh enjoyed the grin and returned it, knowing just what Bryan was talking about. He also was feeling really good about having Bryan grin at him. Even with the story unfolding, a story that sounded really scary, Josh realized he himself was feeling good. Though he didn’t know this guy at all, he instinctively liked him, and he somehow got the sense, maybe from the way Bryan looked at him, that Bryan seemed very comfortable with him, too.
Josh couldn’t help but like him. Bryan was treating him like an equal.
“I thought I could get to school early and wash up a little in one of the bathrooms there, even take my toothbrush with me. Then I realized I had a couple of problems. I didn’t have my bike, I’d left that at home, and I had to do something with the duffle bag. I couldn’t just leave it where it was. And thinking about that made me realize I had to find somewhere else to sleep that night. I’d gotten away with sleeping in those trees that night, but it was too close to home, anyone seeing me would recognize me, my father might even see me, and it wouldn’t be safe to even go there before midnight, I might bump into someone I knew or someone might see me going there. I had to find somewhere else.
“The best time to do that was right then. It was early, almost no one was up, or at least not out on the streets, and so I could wander around a little bit without worrying about being seen. The first order of business was getting my bike. With it, I was mobile. Without it, I had to rely on the bus, and that cost money. I wanted to save as much of that as I could for food.
“I was really scared, going back to my house, but for the past week my father never was up early. This was early. I was pretty sure I could get the bike without him knowing it. I had to try it, in any case. I had to have it.
“I hid my stuff as well as I could, but knew it was unlikely anyone would stumble over it at that time in the morning, and I should be back quite soon. Then, I walked as nonchalantly as I could back to the sidewalk and on to our house. Without pausing, I simply walked up to the garage. It’s separate from the house and behind it. I pushed open the overhead door as quietly as I could, glancing at the house almost continually. Nothing was stirring, so I stepped into the garage, grabbed the bike and a piece of rope that we had there, jumped on the bike and, now that I was almost free, started pedaling like fury, not even bothering to shut the garage door. I was suddenly terrified my father was going to jump out of the house and grab me.
“He didn’t. I rode out into the street and headed back to the park, and was there in less than a minute.
“I rode back into the trees, and my duffle bag and backpack were just where I’d left them. The bag was really too big for the bike, but I didn’t have much choice. I used the rope to tie it on behind the seat, and even though it stuck out a couple of feet on both sides, I found I could manage to ride, even if it was a little wobbly.
“Now I had to figure out where to go. It should be somewhere I could hide the duffle bag and sleep that night. I had no idea where that would be. But as I was riding, heading sort of toward school, I saw a McDonald’s in front of me, and realized I could clean up in their bathroom as well as I could at school and it might be better to do that, as I could then get to school at a more regular time and not get asked questions by anyone, and I’d look presentable, too.
“Also, this way, I could get breakfast.”
Bryan intended this as a joke and smiled at Josh. Josh was so engrossed in the story he hadn’t even imagined there could be any humor involved, but he was a smart and sensitive kid, and when Bryan smiled, he saw the humor and without any thought, actually chuckled. Bryan’s smile grew larger.
Josh broke in before Bryan could continue. “Bryan, let me get you something to eat. Please? I don’t know where this is all going, but you talked about saving any money you had for food. That scares me. It makes me wonder if you’ve been eating regularly. Let me buy you something.”
Bryan didn’t say anything for a moment. Then he seemed to inhale deeply, breathe out, and said softly, “Josh, you don’t have to do that.”
Josh said, “I want to. What do you want?”
Bryan waited a second, and when he spoke, his voice was a little hoarse. “Uh, whatever. It doesn’t make any difference. Thanks, Josh.” And he looked at him with something in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. Josh looked, then quickly turned away. He wasn’t accustomed to kids looking at him with any emotion in their eyes. Or hearing it in their voices. At least not this emotion.
Bryan sat at the table watching as Josh walked to the McDonald’s. He watched as the food was ordered, paid for and brought back to the table. The bag looked heavy, as did the huge drink Josh was bringing, too.
“I hope you like this,” said Josh, pushing the bag toward Bryan.
Bryan just looked at him for a moment. Then, dropping his eyes to the table, he said, “Josh, I feel really funny about taking this. I didn’t really tell you the truth about why I’m talking to you. You don’t really know yet why I came over to your table. I was coming to that later, as the story got to its end. I’m really feeling shitty right now. It’s like I’m taking advantage of you.”
Josh felt a little of his nervousness return. Still, he was calm enough to say, “You said you’d seen me here before, you were shy about talking to people but didn’t like being alone. That wasn’t true?” His voice rose a little at the end, some of his uncertainty leaking out.
Now Bryan felt really bad. He felt he was taking advantage of a six- year-old, even though he was pretty sure Josh was his age. He didn’t know what to say.
Bryan was looking at the table, and Josh was watching him. The really good feeling he’d had just moments before had disappeared. From somewhere, he found the resolve to say, “Maybe you should finish the story. Then I’ll know what you’re getting upset about. But in any case, if you’re hungry, eat that. It’ll make you feel better and I want you to.”
Bryan rolled his eyes up at him, his head still hanging down. Josh saw moisture in his eyes. Without thinking, he stood up, moved to the chair next to him and, sliding it closer to Bryan’s, sat down and put his arm around him. “Hey,” he said, “it’s okay. You haven’t done anything to me but make me feel good by letting me help you a little. Here.” He opened the bag and began putting the food in front of Bryan. “Eat. And continue your story. I want to know what happened next.”
Bryan couldn’t help himself. He smiled a sort of tentative smile, then rubbed at his eyes with the inside of his elbow. Then, he started eating.
Josh watched him, and realized this was a hungry kid. He looked like someone trying to eat slowly and failing in the attempt. He’d take a large bite, take a couple of slow chews, then speed up, swallow, and take another huge bite. While doing that, he was jamming fries in his mouth when he could fit them in, and occasionally taking large swigs of his drink.
Josh had bought him the Double Quarter Pounder® with cheese, extra large fries, onion rings, a cherry pie and an extra large Coke. He himself couldn’t have eaten half that much food. Bryan seemed to be eating it all in about three minutes.
Rather than comment, he thought it would be better if he talked about something else and just let Bryan eat. But what to talk about? Josh was not accustomed to making small talk, especially with kids his age. Then he thought of a question he had.
“That guy you were talking to earlier. Is he a friend of yours? Does he know about all this?”
Bryan had just taken a large bite of burger into a mouth already full of onion rings. He just looked at Josh with a hopeless expression on his face. Josh looked at him and burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” he gasped between chortles. “Take your time.” Then he was roaring again. When he could, he repeated, “I’m sorry. That was mean of me.” And he kept laughing.
Bryan chewed and chewed, and watching him, Josh kept calming down, then starting to laugh again. Bryan had an expression on his face of wanting to say something — just wait, I’ll say it, hold on — and at one point looked like he was about to try to speak, then again realized he couldn’t. He was starting to get a little pissed but still wasn’t able to swallow and so do anything about it, and Josh laughed even harder.
Eventually, Bryan was able to swallow everything in his mouth. He took a slug of coke, then glared reproachfully at Josh. “That was dirty,” he said with mock severity.
“I am sorry,” apologized Josh, still grinning. “I didn’t mean to catch you like that.” Then he started laughing again, and Bryan couldn’t help himself and started laughing too. “So?” prompted Josh. “You stopped for breakfast and . . . ?”
“OK. I rode my bike into Mickey D’s, locked it in the rack and took my duffle inside. I washed up in the restroom. No one else was there. They’d just opened and they didn’t have any other customers yet. When I was done in the bathroom, I ordered a small breakfast and ate it, then just sat thinking about the coming night. Where was I going to stay? I had no idea.
“I thought about the school. I knew the building pretty well and thought about places I might hide after school. I figured I could do that, but then I also thought what that would be like, being in the school all day, then staying there all night. It would be boring as hell, and if they had a night cleaning crew, wherever I was, I could get caught. If I couldn’t come up with a better place, I decided I’d try that, but it wasn’t going to be my first choice.
“So where could I go where I’d not be too noticeable and I could stay all night? I was kicking around ideas in my head, when the mall suddenly occurred to me. There’re always kids around, so I wouldn’t stick out, they had places to buy food so I could eat, I could even do my homework at the tables in the food court, and I’d be safe. The only thing I wasn’t sure was how I could stay there after they locked up at night and where I could hide the duffle bag and my bike, but the mall is huge and I thought if I could look around a little, I’d probably be able to figure something out.”
Bryan had been eating all the time he’d been saying this, interspersing comments between bites and swallows. Now, he only had his pie left and started in on that.
“I felt good, thinking of the mall, and some of the worrying I’d been doing eased up a little. Then I got the idea it might be a good idea to check the mall out now instead of waiting till after school. I could check out the outside when it was still closed to see if there were any good hiding places for my duffle so I wouldn’t have to take it to school with me and at the same time get a feel for the place.
“So I got back on my bike after tying the duffle on again, then rode to the mall. It wasn’t even seven yet and the place was deserted except for two cars parked together near one of the mall doors. I decided they probably were for whatever security they had at night, and it was reasonable to suppose there were at least two guards on duty. I hadn’t expected the place would be entirely empty at night.
“There were bushes and other landscaping in the parking lot and against the sides of the building. As you know, the mall itself is a huge wide U-shaped place with an addition crossing each upleg of the U about halfway between the top of the upleg and the bottom of the U. The parking lot surrounds the building and there’s a multi-tiered parking garage filling some of the space inside the U. I found several places to hide the duffle where it should be safe. I decided on the one that looked the safest to me and made sure no one was looking, then pushed the bag in behind some bushes. I checked and it couldn’t be seen. In was on the inside wall of the U in the corner where the addition crossed the upleg. The area was landscaped with hedges that provided good cover for the bag.
“Then I just rode around the mall on my bike, looking at all the doors and courtyards and alleyways and parking garages and trying to get the whole layout fixed in my head. I’ve been coming to this mall for years and know the inside pretty well, but this was the first time I’d scouted out the outside. Man, this place is really huge!
“After a while, it was time to head for school. I considered not going, because I really wanted to be at the mall when it opened. I wanted to watch and see how that was done, how many people were unlocking doors, where they went after they’d done that, which stores opened first and which last, that sort of thing. I was going to try to find a place to hide in the mall that night, and the more time I had to see how the place operated, the better off I figured I’d be.
“See, I realized this situation was really different from how things usually were for me. Usually, if I screwed something up, I just apologized or pretended it wasn’t me or came up with an excuse and that was that. I think most kids operate that way. Now, if I screwed up and got caught, it could mean my father could end up in jail, I could get thrown into some home or something and I’d never get to return to my old life. So, I had to do this the best I could and I had to be really careful. I was starting to feel a lot of pressure not to screw up.
“I wanted to stay and check the mall out completely, but I figured not going to school would get me noticed, and that wasn’t the way to start out. So, I rode to school, just like on any other day.”
He stopped to take a big drink of his coke. Josh watched every move he made, still entranced by the boy. When Bryan put his cup down, he smiled at Josh. “I’ve been doing a lot of talking.”
“Yeah,” said Josh, “and I get the impression you have a lot more to tell. You don’t sound like you’re anywhere near to telling me why you wanted to talk to me and came over and sat down.”
“We’ll get there, but there’s more first. Unless you want me to stop.”
“Stop?! You’d better not stop. I want to hear where you slept that night and what’s been happening since. How long ago was it that you ran away from home, anyway?”
“Three weeks. That’s a long time when you’re having to watch everything around you all the time and are thinking about a lot of things you’ve never thought about before. For instance, you see those guys over at the Winchell’s counter?”
Josh turned his head and looked. “The three of them, maybe 17 or 18?”
“Yeah, that’s them. Well, in the past, I’d have seen them and thought nothing of it. Now, I see them and make sure they don’t focus on me. Watching them walk, seeing how they look at people as they pass them, those guys are trouble. So, I keep out of their way. Before, I’d never even think about anything like that. Now, I watch things like that constantly. Other things, too. It wears you out a little.”
Josh was looking at the three guys. “They don’t look like anything special to me. Just ordinary guys. Are you sure they’re trouble.”
Bryan sighed. “Yeah, I’m sure. I noticed them when I first came here. They’re here a lot. Always together. I sensed something about them right away and always avoided them. Then, a couple days ago, I was in one of the restrooms, in a cubicle, you know? I heard a noise, then the outside door of the restroom sort of sounded like it was being slammed open. I heard those three guys’ voices, so I knew it was them. And I heard another voice, sort of scared and high-pitched, so knew it was a younger kid. I was in the end stall and luckily they didn’t notice the door was all the way closed. They pushed this kid into the restroom, then the three guys started talking about what they were going to do with him. One of them said he wanted to get a blowjob. Another said they ought to steal the kid’s clothes and make him run naked out into the mall. Then there was a pause, I heard the kid say no, no, in a scared and almost crying voice, and I think one of them must have pulled his pants down at that point because the three guys all laughed at once and one of them said something about a real small wiener, and the kid was by now sort of crying softly. Well, the kid was getting really scared, I could hear it in his voice. Then the third guy told him to give them all his money and he could go, but he’d better not tell anyone about this. The little kid must’ve done that as fast as he could because very quickly after that I could hear the door open and close again, and the three guys laughing. I started getting worried then, but one of the guys said, ‘We’d better get the fuck out of here,’ and they were gone too.
“I was worried about those guys before that ever happened. I try even harder now to stay away from them. I don’t have any money to give them, and don’t know what they’d do when they found that out. I don’t want to learn that.”
Josh didn’t know what to say. He wanted to say things that would show how sorry he was for Bryan, how brave he thought he was, how much he’d like to help, but anything he said he was afraid would sound phony or sympathetic and he didn’t know how Bryan would respond to that. He’d learned the hard way at school that some kids got mad if you showed any sympathy for their problems.
He didn’t have much time to think about it. Bryan took another gulp from his cup and resumed his story.
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