This story is by Doug Smith and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It was the color. That blue. Metallic, iridescent, hopeful. It was that blue that attracted Maisie Blanchard to the old Dodge van that sat alone and waiting at the auction.
She bought it for five hundred dollars. Four hundred and fifty dollars too much her father would say. Despite needing new brakes, tires, a new starter and having too many miles on it, Maisie thought it was a great buy. She would nickname it “The Bright Blue Hope” and she would outfit it with supplies of food and drinks and used clothing. She would drive it through the unfriendly streets of the city helping some of the city’s homeless make it through the dark nights a little easier. She would recruit her best friends Sparkle and Gemma to help. That was the plan.
Sparkle and Maisie met on a night of near tragedy. Sparkle was walking along a busy street in downtown Calgary one snowy evening after her shift at a local Salvation Army store. In the distance she could see a young woman waving her arms frantically leaning beside an elderly man. “Can you help me?”, Maisie pleaded as Sparkle drew near. “I think he’s having a heart attack. An ambulance is coming”. Sparkle immediately dropped her heavy knapsack and began performing CPR on the moaning senior. The ambulance arrived minutes later. Sparkle moved aside and the EMT’s sprang into action. Maisie held Sparkle’s arm tightly as they watched the EMT’s stabilize their patient and as they placed the elderly man onto a stretcher and into the back of the ambulance one of the EMT’s said “Nice work, ladies. You probably saved this guy”. Maisie and Sparkle hugged each other tightly and their friendship was born.
Gemma and Maisie had worked together one summer at a food bank. Gemma was a small, serious woman in her early forties who had moved to Canada from Britain after the death of her husband. She had no children of her own but Maisie soon became the daughter she had always longed for. Gemma especially loved the children who came with their mothers to the food bank. She would play games with them and give them treats. They would laugh and Gemma would laugh and the world would be less hard for a short time.
Maisie, though the youngest of the three women, held them together with a kind of magnetic charm. Her youthful spirit and enthusiasm, her sparkling green eyes and her heart of gold sustained them all even when the going got tough.
There were nights when they wondered if what they were doing was making any difference. There was the night the elderly man pushing a shopping cart full of garbage bags yelled at them to go back where they belonged. He didn’t need their handouts, he said. The three women were only trying to feel good about themselves he said. He didn’t need their pity. There was the middle-aged woman with the haggard face and sad eyes. Haggard and sad from too many years of living on the street, too many years of drugs and alcohol, a face that showed hints of having once been beautiful. She was certain that Maisie was the daughter she had lost so many years before. And there was the man they found dead, curled up in a doorway, a photo of a young boy clutched in his lifeless hand. Nights like those were especially hard on Gemma’s gentle soul. Sometimes she would wonder aloud, “Do they really want help? Are we hurting their pride, pissing them off? Sometimes I don’t understand why we’re out here Sometimes it’s so hard”.
One night four young thugs emerged from the darkness. “Well look what we have here”, one of them, clearly the leader, said. “Whaddaya got in the van?”. Gemma gestured with her arm making a sweeping motion as if showcasing a prize on a game show. “We have sandwiches and soup and hot coffee. And we have warm socks and mitts and scarves and some books”. The thug leader edged closer. “You have any liquor in there or weed maybe?”, he asked. “No. Nothing like that I’m afraid”, Gemma answered in her polite British accent.
The thug leader had been eyeing Maisie and approached her menacingly his swagger exaggerated into a sad pantomime. “Well maybe there IS something I could use right here”, he said reaching to touch Maisie’s cheek. At that instant Sparkle appeared from around the front of the van, her six foot, one hundred and sixty pound frame a study in locomotion. Her dirty blonde dreadlocks flowed behind her like a jet stream. “If we can’t help you guys just move on”, she barked. Three of the foursome froze in their steps but the leader continued to move toward her. She reached into the open door of the van and pulled out a metal baseball bat which she tucked under her meaty arm not taking her eyes off the young thug. He stopped and glared at her. She rubbed her hands together, shouldered the bat and said, “Watch this, girls”. The thug leader scowled and turned back towards his friends. “Fuck you, dyke”, he shouted and the troupe disappeared into the night. The three women looked at each other shaken. “Maybe we’ll pack it up for tonight, Maisie said sighing with deep disappointment.
A rustle in the shadows caused the women to look up in unison. A young man stepped forward into the light of the streetlamp. He was about twenty years old, his ball cap on backward and his worn hoodie pulled tight against the night chill. “Hey”, he said shyly. Sparkle stood up and took a pace forward. “Dude, we don’t want any trouble” she said her voice sounding more menacing than she had intended. “Whoa. Sorry”, he said backing away. “I thought I heard something about sandwiches and coffee”. Maisie jumped to her feet. “Wait. Wait don’t go”, she pleaded. “We’re so sorry. We just had a run in with some rough characters. Come. Get something to eat”.
The young man approached the van and smiled at the three women eager to help him. “Here. Sit here”, Gemma said unfolding a lawn chair and placing it by the Bright Blue Hope’s big sliding door. “What’s your name, son?, Sparkle asked. “Julian. Most people call me Jules”, he said watching her and Gemma busily preparing him a plate. Maisie climbed into the front seat of the van and began rustling through papers.
“ Why do you do this?”, Jules asked tucking into a thick egg sandwich. “ I saw those guys hassling you. Who volunteers for that? Nice one by the way, lady”, he said, smiling at Sparkle and gesturing as if swinging a baseball bat. Gemma shrugged. “The world is so screwed up these days, Jules and so many people are hurting”, she said quietly. “We’re just trying to be decent humans I guess. Maybe there’ll be a deposit in the karma bank for us some day”.
“I have to ask you, Jules why are you on the street?. You’re so young”. “Long story”, he said taking a long sip of hot coffee. “I was living with my dad. My mom took off a few years ago. She couldn’t handle the violence any more. The old guy had a really short fuse. I would have gone with her but she just…left. I still don’t know where she is. Somehow my dad found out I was gay and that was it. He went nuts and told me to hit the road. Actually his last words to me were ‘get the fuck out’. I lived with various friends for a while. But, I didn’t want to be a burden so I hit the streets”. He looked away into the darkness. “People on the street somehow persevere though, don’t they”, he asked no one in particular. “In their world no matter how hard it gets they will struggle, they will innovate, they will do whatever it takes to stay alive. For the time being I have to be that brave”.
Maisie returned with her hands full of brochures and papers and sat beside Jules. “These will show you some programs and places that will help you out until you get on your feet again” she said fanning the brochures out like a deck of cards. Jules nodded. “Cool. Thanks. And thanks for the food” he said standing. “Well I’d better get moving. Places to go. People to see”, he joked. “Keep up the good work, you guys. They might be brave but lots these people still need you”.
The three women hugged him and wished him well as he faded into the night. Maisie and Gemma sat together in the opening of the Bright Blue Hope’s sliding door. Maisie put her arm around Gemma’s shoulder and pulled her close. “That’s why we do this, Gem”, she whispered pointing in Jules’ direction. “That’s why”.
Rosemary Clarke, aka Empress of All says
Your cast of characters made a nice, motley crew. Good depiction of a sadly, typical night in urban North America.
They might be brave but lots these people still need you”. I think you might want to insert “of” between lots and these.