Chapter Nine

January 2nd

A week after Christmas, the day after the New Year had been rung in at a dinner with her friends, Ashley found herself behind the shelter. Henry had made her think – not just about her ring, but about how the things she took for granted might mean the world (or at least the difference between hungry and full) to someone in his position. She had a cooler full of sandwiches and pop, a thermos of coffee, and a sleeping bag she’d dug out of storage that she’d never used.

The weak afternoon sun glinted off the dusting of snow that had fallen that morning. Ashley studied the tracks made by people wandering around the shelter. One set of tracks had a normal footprint and a dragging print with it, and she wondered if the person who was dragging their foot was okay. She peered into the corner where Henry said he lived, but there was nothing there today.

She wondered if he’d moved on as he’d hinted he might last week and thought about passing the food and pop to the young couple huddled beneath a blanket near the dumpster.

Tap tap tap

Ashley jerked her head to the left, her hand ready to start her car so she could flee. Henry peered in at her and Ashley felt a smile replace the fear. Looking into his incredibly blue eyes, her heart continued to pound in her chest as her hand fluttered to the door and flicked the button to release the locks. Henry came around the car to get in.

“Not looking so ritzy today,” Henry commented, taking in Ashley’s sweater and jeans as he closed the door.

“Don’t let them fool you, the sweater cost me eighty bucks.” Ashley shivered at the sudden cold Henry brought with him.

“A week of dinners then,” Henry chuckled, and Ashley worried about the slight wheeze she heard.

“Brought you some sandwiches,” Ashley pointed at the cooler on the floor in the backseat of the car, and Henry dove on it.

She watched the young couple as Henry ate two sandwiches before speaking again.

“Thanks.” He sounded embarrassed as he used his hand to check for crumbs in his beard.

“My pleasure.” Ashley’s gaze kept returning to the young couple. As hard as she tried to stifle the curiosity, she couldn’t help wondering about them. “That couple, they look so young.”

“She’s fourteen, he’s sixteen.” Henry’s tone was hushed — and sad, if Ashley was reading him correctly.

“That isn’t legal.” Ashley felt outrage that such young people were huddling in the cold, alone. How scared they must be.

“When your mother don’t care, you don’t care. No one’s lookin’ for her, and she’s been here since Boxing Day. He don’t live here, he goes home at night, but he hates her being out here. Can’t bring her home ‘cuz his parents don’t like her, but they’d have his picture on every bus station and milk carton from here to Vancouver if he didn’t come home.”

Ashley watched them for a few minutes, wondering if the girl could possibly be safe when the boy went home. As though reading her thoughts, Henry shrugged and said, “When he goes home, I take care of her.”

“You’re a good man.” Ashley smiled, patting his arm. Henry’s hand automatically went to his pocket, fiddling, and she pulled her hand away quickly, thinking he might be worried she’d ask about his treasure.

“Don’t be so sure. If I were a good man, would I be out here?”

Ashley thought about his question. “I don’t think it’s that simple. I’m sure there are some real badasses out here, but I’m just as sure that there are people like you that are here, surviving, and are good at their core. Maybe they have to steal a loaf of bread, or pick the odd pocket to keep going, but they’re not bad people. Like I said at Christmas, sometimes here is all that’s left, right?”

“Oh, yeah? And what do you know about people like us?” Henry sounded hostile, and Ashley frowned at him.

“Human nature is the same whether you are born into money or born on the street. The good exist in every class, and the bad too. I think sometimes the bad here is easier to spot – the evil to the core ones in my world can afford any mask.” Ashley thought again of Michael Jr.. She’d read the article Quinn Henderson had printed on Christmas Eve, painting the Golden Boy as a man who’d lost nearly everything only to fight his way back. The quote that’d stayed with her out of everything the Golden Boy had said came to her now. ‘You know, I forgive Ashley for what she did. For all of it. I just hope she gets the help she desperately needs.’ How sweet, how innocent, how endearing to the readers, how misleading.

“Might be right.” Henry grabbed two more sandwiches and opened the door. Ashley thought he was leaving, but watched as he went over to the young couple and gave the girl the sandwiches. The boy looked up at him and Ashley could lip read ‘thank you’ as he shook Henry’s hand. Henry returned to the car. 

“The boy brings her food, but I see today he brought less than usual. I think his parents must be asking questions now. Won’t be long before he can’t get here at all, or if he does, he’ll have nothing for her.”

Ashley studied them. “Is she a good kid?”

“Stole a loaf of bread,” Henry wheezed lustily. “You tell me.”

Ashley grinned at him as she fingered her cell phone. A plan was forming.

*

Half an hour after Henry left, Char parked her Mercedes beside Ashley and climbed out, a curious frown lining her forehead. Ashley rolled down her window as Char approached her door. “What’s up?”

Ashley pointed to the bundle of blankets the young girl was huddled beneath. “Fourteen years old, and her mother doesn’t care that she’s been on the streets for a week. Threw her out the day after Christmas.”

“You’re kidding!” Char eyed the blankets. “You’re sure there’s someone in there?”

“She’s freezing, and yes. She dove under the blankets when I got out of my car, so I got back inside, afraid I’d spook her into running off. Her boyfriend comes every day, tries to bring her food, but his parents don’t approve. Henry says he won’t come much once school starts in two days – his parents will wonder where he is. She rarely goes into the shelter for food – Henry says she’s terrified to go in there at all.”

“Who’s Henry?” Char asked, studying Ashley with surprised curiosity.

“The old guy from the dinner. I brought him some sandwiches. Anyway, you got any idea what we can do? I was thinking of bringing her home with me, but she’s fourteen. Do you think I’d be breaking the law?”

Char scratched her chin and went to her car without another word. Ashley rolled up her window and stepped out of hers, her gaze darting from the bundle of blankets to Char. Char’s door was closed but Ashley could see she was talking on her phone. Char knew someone in every walk of life – trying to figure out who she was talking so animatedly to was futile.

Ashley adjusted the coat she’d put on while waiting for Char and zipped it higher before pulling on her leather gloves to ward against the chill. The setting sun seemed to make it feel even colder. Several minutes passed, and Char gave Ashley the thumbs up before dropping her phone and getting out of the car.

“Who did you call?”

“I’ll explain later. Let’s go meet the girl.” Char approached the blankets, and said in a loud voice, “Knock, knock.”

The young girl peeked out, shivering. She had a ring in her eyebrow and left nostril, but she looked scared, years younger than fourteen.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” Char asked, her tone no more curious than if she’d asked her the time.

“No law against it.” She didn’t emerge from her blankets, and she sounded a lot bolder than her trembling lip expressed.

“Actually there is, the city is full of no loitering signs and police typically arrest people for vagrancy – if they’re out in the open. I doubt the cops come back here much unless someone gets attacked.” Char shrugged, looking around the dingy parking area. “Bet there’re rats in that dumpster.”

The girl’s eyes widened, and she looked beside her as though expecting a rat to join her any minute. “Haven’t seen any.”

“Yet,” Char said cheerfully. Ashley frowned at her friend. The girl needed someone to help her, not scare the wits out of her. “Where you from?”

The girl named an area of the city that wasn’t known for its affluence, or crime rate. A regular, blue collar type neighborhood in the north-east end of the city.

“Fancy that. You go to Thompson Collegiate?”

The girl’s eyes filled with tears. “Went.”

“Oh, you been out here that long?”

Ashley watched Char. She knew Char, knew she was playing at something, but for the life of her couldn’t figure out what.

“A week.” The girl sniffled and wiped her face with a hand clad in a woolen mitten that Ashley suddenly recognized – it was the same blue pair Henry had got for Christmas. Feeling warm inside, she looked around for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. He’d hightailed away the minute she’d called Char, after thanking her for the sandwiches and grudgingly accepted the sleeping bag she gave him.

“So you couldn’t have told the school you were dropping out.” Char winked at Ashley when the young girl shook her head.

“Well, I was skipping a lot. They said I’d be expelled if I kept skipping off classes anyhow –”

“You like it here?” Char looked around as if they were in a cozy little garden instead of next to a dumpster that stunk faintly of rotten food. Ashley imagined in the summer months the stench would drive the girl far from her spot.

“It’s — .it’s okay –” the girl was shivering, and wrapped the blanket tighter around her.

“You got parents?” Ashley opened her mouth to berate Char for her rudeness, but the girl shook her head. “None?”

“My mother — she threw me out. My dad, he’s got a new family.” She sounded like a little girl who was lost and frightened. Tears were snaking down her cheeks, leaving streaks on her dirty face.

“Rough.” Char’s tone barely expressed sympathy. “Bet you’d love a shower, huh?”

“There’s a shower in the shelter, but it’s kind of — people watch.” The girl shuddered.

“What’s your name?” Char ignored her statement even though Ashley felt sick. She was a little girl. Who watched? Men?

“Angela.” She scrubbed her face with the mittens again, snuffling.

“Nice. Tell you what, I know a guy, he’s a good guy, owns a motel not far from your ‘hood. Ever seen the little place beside the huge hotel on Lawrence? The Hovel?” Angela nodded. “Don’t let the name fool you. It’s clean, and it’s not very busy. The big hotel sort of killed his business. He’s got some peeops living there, good folks that are hurting a bit. I’m thinking he might rent you a spot.”

Angela’s hopeful expression fell. Her despair was palpable and Ashley’s heart squeezed. “I don’t have any money.” 

“Hmm, that is a problem. You willing to work?”

The guarded look was back. “I know what that means. The old guy who gave me his mittens warned me that work means hook.”

“Yeah, here it means hook, and believe me, you and your high-falutin’ morals won’t resist long when your stomach feels like hunger is scratching your gut to ribbons, but where I’m from, and where I’m talking about, work means work. Making beds, doing laundry, cooking, whatever chore needs doing.”

Ashley gaped at Char. Carlos, the owner of the Hovel, was a millionaire that didn’t use his motel as a motel. And he owned the massive hotel next to The Hovel. Char knew him better than Ashley did, but she wasn’t sure that Carlos would be too happy to have a young girl on his premises – or willing to have her there.

“I do all that at home, that’s why my mom threw me out. Said I wasn’t doing enough because I didn’t fold her clothes right and smacked me because I burnt her steak.”

“Well, Carlos might not let you cook him steak then, but I think he might have a spot for you. You’ll earn it, and you’ll have to go to school regularly, no more skipping classes unless you’re sick. No drugs or alcohol on the premises. He’ll help you get some money, too.”

The girl crawled out from beneath the blankets fully and hunkered down in a coat much too large that Ashley suspected belonged to her boyfriend. “How am I going to earn money? Working or hooking?”

“There’s something called student welfare. He’ll help you get it, if your mother agrees you can’t stay with her.”

The girl looked hopeful, like life wasn’t over yet. Just then, the young man returned, carrying two steaming cups of coffee. He looked terrified, as if he wanted to run, but Angela pulled off her mitten and whistled shrilly with her fingers in her mouth. “It’s okay, Chris.”

As Angela explained to her boyfriend, Ashley pulled Char aside. “Carlos isn’t going to be happy if you show up with a street kid.”

“Oh, trust me, Carlos will be thrilled. He owes me for one thing, and for another, he’ll think it gets him an inch closer to getting me in his bed. I’ll let him think I’m grateful, but truth is, he’s a big softie. Got four teenage girls there as it is, and a teacher from the Catholic high school who acts as guardian for them. They don’t get to have boys in their rooms, they’ve got a nice little rec area to bring their friends over, and he gets paid for their rent because they all get student assistance. It’s win-win for everyone. He won’t admit it, but I think he puts their rent aside to help them go to college or university down the road.”

Ashley looked at her friend, a smile playing on her lips. “You going to let Carlos in your pants for this?”

“She’s only in grade nine. If she makes it to college, I might.”