This story is by Abbie Wainwright and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Amelia Darnae reached under the collar of her long coat and pulled her blond curls from its confines. Though she preferred the days when she didn’t have to be bundled up in layers of wool and cotton, she wouldn’t be caught without her coat, especially with the fluffy snow currently falling from the sky. Beautiful, but cold.
Amelia slipped out the door of her house, making as little noise as possible so as not to disturb her father in his business meeting, and headed down the street towards her favourite store. Christmas was around the corner, and she intended to get a head start on her shopping list. Not only did she shop for her family members, but she took on the buying for her father’s investors as well. He needed to charm all the right people to keep his business running with the success it was, and presents usually did the trick.
The chilly weather didn’t frighten people off the streets. In fact, it seemed that even more people were out than usual, excited at the sight of the first snowfall. Amelia walked with an air of importance, the intimidation of money cleaving a path through the crowds. That was how she liked it.
She was just passing an alley when the sight of an out of place bundle told her curious mind to stop and look. An older man, dirty and clothed in torn fabrics, was huddled against the brick wall. He was struggling to untie two shoes that should have been on his feet, his shaking hands making the effort impossible. The more he tried, the more pitiful he looked. Amelia avoided homeless people as best she could. Scumbags and thieves they all were, and with her obvious appearance of wealth, it wasn’t a good idea to be around them. But something about this sad man pulled at her heart, and she stepped out of the street and into the alley to help him, despite every objection her mind was throwing at her.
She crouched in front of him, ignoring the fact that her coat was dragging on the dirt-covered ground. “May I help you, sir?”
The man looked at her with pale blue eyes in a face full of dirt-caked wrinkles. He almost looked startled at the pretty young woman in front of him, like he didn’t know what to do.
“Sir?” Amelia prompted, growing impatient.
The man stood up, clutching his shoes, and Amelia followed him. She hoped desperately that he hadn’t seen her approach as threatening. She didn’t see how he could; her heels and dress were hardly conducive to anything antagonistic. But he didn’t seem to be all the way there in his mind, and Amelia wasn’t going to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Growing more uncomfortable, she repeated, “Sir, may I help you?”
The man’s eyes shifted from Amelia’s face down to her arm, where her leather purse hung from her elbow. Amelia took a step backwards, hoping the man would come to his senses and leave her be. Nothing good would come of attacking a rich man’s daughter.
The man grabbed her by the wrist, catching her in a grip that was much stronger than his appearance suggested he had. He tried to snatch at her bag, but she turned it behind her body. She was not in the mood for being robbed today.
“Let me go!” She ordered, fists clenched.
The man hesitated, but didn’t do as she said. She struggled against him for a few more seconds before turning toward the street to call for help. The word stuck in her throat. There, between her and the freedom of civilization was another homeless man. He was her age by the looks of it, but she couldn’t place an exact number with his handsome face so dirty. A devil in disguise, she thought, there to help the old thief and split their earnings.
The new arrival clamped his hand on the old man’s shoulder. He was going to do it. He was going to suggest they team up; hit her over the head and dump her in a river somewhere.
“What are you doing, Charles?” He asked the socked foot street-dweller.
Charles looked almost ashamed at the question. “She’s got money to spare.” He muttered, chin lowering to his chest.
“This isn’t the way to get money. You know that.” The man waited a few heartbeats for Charles to react, and when he didn’t, he leaned in closer, getting more serious. “Let her go.”
Charles dropped Amelia’s arm and grumbled as he shuffled down the alley in his socks, shoes dangling from his fingers. Amelia held her bag to her chest and turned to her new possible adversary, her back stock straight and chin held high.
“Are you going to attack me too?” She asked, voice challenging when maybe it was an inappropriate time to be such.
The man shook his head, the smallest smile playing on his lips. “We’re not all like that, you know.”
Amelia arched her eyebrow. “And why, pray tell, should I believe that?”
The man lifted his arm in a lazy salute and then dropped it again, shoving his hand in his coat pocket. “Sergeant Will Thomas, ready for orders.”
Amelia’s mouth bobbed open but she shut it again, not one to be caught by surprise. Or at least, not one to show that she was caught by surprise. “And I’m supposed to believe you?”
Will huffed with an air of annoyance. He pulled a set of dog tags out of his shirt, holding them steady between his thumb and forefinger. “I didn’t ‘thieve them’ if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“You’re really a soldier?”
“Used to be.” Will shrugged, looking at his feet as he scuffed them on the ground in turn.
“Then… then why are you…” Amelia trailed off, grasping for a polite word to describe Will’s current situation.
“Homeless?” Will snorted. “You leave for war, people farewell you with parades and parties. You come back and no one cares what you did. You’re a nobody again, just like before.”
Will looked her in the eye, and Amelia saw a quick flash of sadness in them – the same sadness she had seen in her brother’s eyes every time he came home from deployment; until he didn’t. Everyone knew war had killed him, but they didn’t know it had killed him long before the bullet pierced his heart. It had taken his spirit first, and now Amelia suspected Will’s soul was decaying as well.
Amelia shook her head, brow furrowed. It shouldn’t be that way. She didn’t understand how someone could give up a home and life to fight for their country and come back to nothing. She didn’t understand how people could forget the sacrifice they made. The soldiers certainly didn’t get to, with their minds filled with horror and sadness, and not even a home to go back to.
Will was finished with the conversation, his body turning to leave. “Good afternoon, ma’am. Stay clear of the alleys. Don’t want to run into any more homeless folk.”
There was nothing angry about the way he said his words. It was almost teasing, but Amelia still felt guilty. How much it must hurt him to go from a soldier with bravado to being accused of intent to thieve. She grew flustered as Will made his way down the alley, the same way Charles had gone. He was leaving, and she would never see him again. She could forget about him. But she didn’t want to. How many more soldiers were living in the cold streets that she didn’t know about? That she forgot about? They deserved better, and Amelia wanted to give it to them.
“Wait.” She called towards Will’s back, and he stopped. He didn’t bother facing her, but she knew he was listening all the same. “Do you really have nowhere to go?”
Will turned a little at that, his feet still pointing to where he was headed. “Not anywhere you would call home.”
Amelia took a deep breath. “Do you have any previous engagements scheduled for tonight?”
Will faced her fully now, eyes curious and mouth in that same small smile as before. He took off his flat cap and ran a hand through his straight black hair. “Well, I was going to have dinner with the street cat, but that could probably be put off until another day. Why do you ask?”
“I’d like to invite you to dinner.”
Will looked down at his appearance, arms stretched wide. “What, a thieving homeless man like me?”
Amelia smirked. “I’ve been told you’re not all like that.”
Will smiled at her – a real, genuine smile. “I’d love to come, ma’am.”
Amelia grinned, happy she had won such a response from the man. She beckoned him forward and he came, following her out of the alley and into the street. Shopping could wait for another day.