This story is by BJ Stewart and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A wiry, weathered hand gripped the smooth painted edge of the park bench. Will had travelled far away from the others and he wondered if they were thinking of him on this warm, cloudless day. They would not be worried, as he was nothing to them. One thing he was sure of, they were not likely to be seeing such a vivid blue sky, as the one that was looming large above him now.
As thoughts of the weather enveloped him, the warm sun lulled Will into a light sleep. He wasn’t asleep long, as loud rumblings of hunger lifted him awake and his thoughts drifted back to that snowy winter night. He had slipped out of the shelter, just as soft white snowflakes dusted the dirty wet streets. His thoughts soon shifted again, to a darker place, and suddenly, he felt breathless, his body stiffening against the weathered slats of the seat. His breaths now ragged and shallow, his fingers coiling grotesquely, as his body struggled for air with hyperventilation and panic. The fear and intense vulnerability rising within him, a dark cloud hovering over his soul. Will struggled as his past gripped his heart, like the talons of a hungry black vulture. Minutes passed and the panic drifted slowly from him. Will’s breathing slowly and steadily recovered, and he became acutely aware of his surroundings, and the loneliness that was his normal state of being.
He thought of his life in Buffalo. He had no one, but the familiar faces on the streets or at the shelter. Most he would see with regularity, on his daily trek to the meal that sustained him. At night, Will would hope for a shelter bed or a darkened recess between houses or shops, in order to rest, staying vigilant for the sounds of predators.The streets could be dangerous for the homeless.
He was born William Tuttle Emerson to the daughter of a salesman. His mother, Rose had been ill suited for her family’s reticent middle class life. She suffered from mental illness and was often lost to them, living on the frayed edge of the Emerson family. His memories of his mother was of gentle and loving woman. Will had few clear memories of his life as a small child and of sporadic times living in a tall, red brick home. He could still picture it in his mind; a warm golden room bathed in sunlight from the large window that overlooked a grassy yard. The other woman there was his grandmother, Lizzie, a tiny, but sturdy woman with a beaked nose and strong jaw. Her eyes were the color of the gray wintry Buffalo sky and her hair a faded red. He remembers those same eyes projecting love and warmth as she opened the door and welcomed them in. Sadly, his grandmother was long gone.
Will’s thoughts shifted again, to his travels and the long road to Santa Fe. Looking around him, he studied the row of rounded, sand colored buildings, and the people lingering on the old plaza. He felt an unexpected joy at the sights and sounds around him. This place could not be compared to any town he had seen before.
As the late afternoon approached, the deep hunger pangs lifted Will again, to his reality, and he gripped the rail and rose slowly, his stiffened legs struggling to hold the weight of his tall frame. He shuffled forward, gained his bearings and headed south. He walked the narrow streets, connecting one to another, and then turned, heading further south down a long commercial route. He was looking to find the large overhead sign of a shelter; one that he hoped would feed him tonight.
The walk was long, but the slow, steady movement soothed Will’s troubled mind. He longed for the comfort of those he had once loved, but for now, he would seek comfort here in Santa Fe.
As he walked, his thoughts drifted once again. Will’s darkest and most troubling memory was, from the age of eight, of his mother Rose. The pain of missing her took hold of him once again. Despite her illness, there were moments of joy, as she donned motherhood like a bright blue Sunday hat. These times, when her depression lifted, were rare like the departing gray skies of an eastern winter. His guilt grew in the years that followed her death, as in his child’s mind, he had been unable to save her. It was his fault that they were out that night, trudging through the ice and snow to satisfy a child’s wish for hot chocolate.
Moments before the crash, she had gently and protectively nudged him ahead of her across the icy street. He had reached the curb well ahead of her and as he turned to look back, her screams tore into him. The truck, sliding abruptly on the ice, struck her brutally, hurling her body. He was left sobbing on the side of the road, until they took him from her. His mother gone. Nana Lizzie was gone as well and the old man long before. He was truly alone, then and now.
Will needed to move toward something, to break that last memory of her and that terror filled night, and the long difficult years that followed. As Will’s mind cleared, his feet trudged forward, moving his weary body toward the shelter.
The deep depression that had enveloped Will, so long ago, was still with him. He wondered if he would ever feel normal, but it seemed as though this was not to be. His shoulders slumped from the weight of his life, and the cycle he could not break, yet somehow, he continued to move forward. His traumatic experiences had not ended with her death, but rather it seemed to be the catalyst of an ongoing series of events, coupled with life on the street.
He must keep pushing himself forward.
The shelter was ahead and a thin crowd gathered on the corner below a large sign, John’s Place.
This one was unlike other shelters he had visited during his travels, but that didn’t concern him. His mission was simple. He hoped for a bed and food. When he finally arrived, he was struck by the sight of a multitude of tiny tents erected in the small paved lot facing the street. Quickly, he settled in to a line of several others waiting to be let in.
As Will’s turn came, he entered the building and moved toward the receiving desk. Mandy looked up from the large crumpled log book into the gentle gray eyes of a man she had not seen before. She was accustomed to seeing familiar faces night after night, as the evening rush began for a hot meal and cot. All would eat, but not all would find space to sleep, as cot space was limited. This man was tall, she noted, with broad shoulders and a weathered face, and he held a soft, kind expression. Will felt suddenly anxious as he moved slowly toward her. Mandy was accustomed to strangers entering the shelter and quickly said hello and began to recite the rules. The man listened carefully and felt comforted when he heard that a bed was available.
Suddenly, Will’s fatigue gripped his entire being and he needed to sit before completing the intake, and relinquish his bag to the woman. She reminded him of someone, her dark red hair tied loosely above her head. Once again, his thoughts drifted. Will retreated to his childhood and to the woman who was his mother. While his memories were mixed with love and warmth, and abandonment, the trauma that changed the course of his life could not be forgotten. He looked again at the woman before him and Will hoped for comfort. She looked up at him, finishing the review of the house rules and then she smiled, touching his hand, and the warmth of human kindness struck him deeply.
Once settled, he ate at the long common table and shared small chatter with those around him. Before long, he was given a cot, and feeling safe, he quickly drifted into a deep sleep.
The following morning, Will found another clear day when he walked out of the shelter, feeling rested, as he had not been in some time. Mandy, the red-haired woman was gone now and another helped him to retrieve his bag. Will moved toward the street, heavy with traffic, and he wondered which direction to take. He looked up at the mountain peaks dappled with sun and clusters of orange from the changing colors of the mountain aspens. The air was dry and the sun warmed him again. Will felt a glimmer of hope, as the troubling memories and long-standing guilt settled further away in his mind. With this moment of anticipation, he turned away from the shelter and moved purposefully toward the mountains.