This story is by Jeff L Mauser and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fleeing the biting wind I stumble into a narrow cul-de-sac, snow flurries surround me. It’s only wide enough for a garbage truck to access the three dumpsters along the back. The crumbling chunks of asphalt cut thru the thin soles of my loafers as I stomp my feet to remove the snow. There is a meager light from an office, far above. It shines down upon a halo of cascading snowflakes. Seems I’m not the only lost soul on this cold Portland, Oregon Christmas Eve.
I see movement, a wisp of moisture-laden warm air rising behind the middle dumpster. On the ground, I look for it under the dumpster. Wearing only threadbare slacks the cold icy slush burns my legs. The pain is worth it. Worth the possibility of warmth. I see a small vent from the adjoining building’s basement. I squeeze between, then behind the dumpsters. The vent is a roaring hearth to me in my inadequate winter clothes.
Shivering in the warmth I wipe my runny nose on my frayed overcoat. A cough comes and I try to stifle it but I can’t. It’s long and racks my body. I spit mucus under the dumpster to my left. I don’t have to see the blood to know it’s there.
Warmer than I’ve been in days I relax and closes my eyes. Exhausted, I’m instantly asleep and dreaming. I’m soaring above the city, then flying down the streets darting between the cars. I zoom past St Michael the Archangel, on my way to Voodoo Donuts. I stop, seeing a young woman with a baby huddling in a doorway. I hover over her. I see the last minute Christmas shoppers crowding the sidewalk. They are doing their best to not see the young woman or hear the crying baby.
I awake with a start. It’s not safe to sleep too deep living on the streets. In the winter there’s the chance of dying from the cold. Always, cold steel. Someone willing to take your life for what little you have. I hear a baby crying. I think that was a dream, although, she was close by. Another thought comes unsolicited, I have a coat, thin yes, but in the dream, she doesn’t. I have a choice, she may not. I smile knowing what I must do. Granted, I am missing my warm nest as soon as I step out past the dumpsters.
The cul-de-sac is one building down an alley off West Burnside Street. I’m invisible to the self-absorbed throng of shoppers. They don’t look toward the alley. I squint at the bright holiday decorations. Down the street I see people stepping wide of a doorway. The baby’s cries are louder.
I watch a well-dressed man walk up and begin talking to the doorway. A snow flurry on a gust of wind makes him pull his coat tighter. He sounds angry, the wind carried a bit of conversation my way. I walk toward the doorway and crying baby.
I hear a loud “No” in a soft female voice mingled with the baby’s cry. I see the well-dressed man stumbles backward. Recovering his balance he steps even closer. Struggling to stand, she uses the door frame to steady herself. Once upright, she shoves him away, again.
I must do something. She’s going to lose this argument. I hesitate. I’ve never won a fight in my life. The well-dressed man raises his hand to hit her. He doesn’t get the chance. I try to tackle him. I fail. I only knock him into a deep pile of dirty snow between the sidewalk and the street.
I turn toward the woman and stop. She’s a young girl. “Follow me. I know a safe warm place for you and the baby.” She doesn’t move, not sure who to trust. I grab her hand, knowing we have to move fast, and that neither of us can.
People help the well-dressed man up. They brush the snow off him which prevents him from seeing where we are going. We don’t stop until we’re at the dumpster.
“Take my coat.” I hand it to her and point. “Slide behind the dumpster there’s a vent. It’ll keep you and the baby warm. You should be safe for tonight.” She has the deer in the headlights look. I make another choice without thinking. “I’m going to make sure he doesn’t follow.” She understands. I watch her slip behind the dumpster.
I hurry past the well-dressed man. He doesn’t recognize without my coat. I want to be as far away from their hiding place as I can before he sees me. Three blocks up the street I run across Burnside causing the cars to screech and honk. In the center divider, I pause, to catch my breath.
As I planned, he sees me. Seconds later, I run up NW 8th Avenue. A hacking cough stops me as I enter the park. My chest hurts, I can’t catch my breath. My plan worked too well. As soon as I stopped he sucker punches me.
He’s holding me up against a brick building on NW Couch Street as I regain consciousness. “Where are they?” Effortlessly he pushes me farther up the side of the building. “They’re my daughter and granddaughter and you took them from me. Where the fuck are they?”
My feet are dangling. He punches me hard in the abdomen letting me fall into a heap on the snow-covered sidewalk. My head bounces as it hits the sidewalk.
His foot finds my kidneys. It’s difficult to breathe. I cough again, this time primarily blood. I fold into the fetal position before the next and following kicks.
The beating stops and I look around, the well-dressed man is standing a few feet away. Through swollen eyes I see people watching us. One man comes to help.
“Let me help you up,” the Good Samaritan asks bending over me. I try to crawl away; wave him off, but he helps me up anyway.
“Oh thank you,” the well-dressed man says, “my friend here is a bit under the weather.” He takes me farther up 8th Avenue, pinning me against another wall. “I’m going to stop asking,” he punches me in the stomach to make his point, “and really beat the shit out of you.”
Thinking he deserves an answer but unable to breathe I spit on him. All blood but I’m sure he gets my point. It hurts to smile but I do anyway. I watch my blood dribble down his face onto his nice freshly ironed white shirt.
It seems the well-dressed man had been holding back. He leans into me pushing me harder against the wall, holding me by the throat with his forearm. I slide farther off the ground with each pounding fist to my stomach and kidneys.
He stops when his hand is dripping with my blood. I drop to the ground when he lets go. He kicks me in the head twice before wiping the blood off his hand on my dirty torn shirt.
He inspects the outside of his overcoat for blood. Not seeing any, he buttons it up before rejoining the crowd of late Christmas shoppers. He doesn’t notice the young girl standing, wrapped in a long thin coat, across the street. The slush around me is turning a deeper red.
She had watched her father go after the homeless man. She wanted to say something, but her body still ached from his latest rape. She chooses to say a prayer. A prayer for the man’s safety. She knew her father would hurt him as he hurt her. Wrapping the coat tighter around them, she returns with the baby to the warm spot behind the dumpster.
The slush feels cool against my blood hot cheek. The falling snow on my skin feels good, warming me in a funny way. I feel a touch on my shoulder. I look up to see gentle blue eyes full of love and compassion, they offer their hand. I stand expecting to feel overwhelming pain, but to my surprise there is elation. She wraps a large white cloak about me as she leads me by the hand up past where snowflakes start.
The young mother looks at her sleeping baby, a dollop of breast milk on her lips. The traffic on the avenue has retired for the holiday. In the quite of the evening, she hears, in the distance, the soft chiming of Church bells. Its midnight, its Christmas day. She hears another bell, soft and sweet from somewhere overhead. It reminds her of a movie she saw once long ago, a lifetime ago before her father . . . She sighs. In the movie, the little girl is telling her daddy “every time a bell rings an angel gets their wings.” She hopes her Christmas Angel, wherever he is, is safe and warm. Feeling safe, for now, she drifts into sleep knowing this will be a Happy Christmas.