Tabitha Baumander


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     Few places are busier than a restaurant in Florida during spring break season.  This one serving Greek food along with a selection of American standards was no exception.  Even after he cut his hand the dish boy was glued to the sink till he managed to slip away on the excuse that the garbage needed to be emptied.  It was part of his job as well and very much the truth.

     The boy, slender and pale claimed to be eighteen years of age on his application.  In spite of the identification the kid had to prove age the chef doubted he was more than sixteen.  It didn’t matter.  He worked hard and didn’t complain.  In fact he hardly spoke at all.

Even with his bandaged hand now protected by the rubber gloves the cooks helper had tossed him the boy picked up the can with very little effort to the surprise of everyone not to busy to notice and carried it out into the back lane.  He emptied the can into the dumpster then left it by the back door.  As he was doing this the back door to the kitchen was slowly closing.  The moment it was completely closed he pulled off the gloves then slipped off his work smock and set both of them on the lid of the can.  Racing for the street he was gone by the time the owner John Hartwell looked out the back door.

     John Hartwell was in his late fifties.  He had a head of short graying hair and a body that put a lie to his actual age.  He took one look at the smock on the can then motioned for the chef a thickly accented Greek named Vito to join him.

     “I thought I told you to keep an eye on him,” Hartwell said, pointing at the can.

     The chef swore quietly in Greek.

     “Boss its just as well,” he said.

     He started to go back to work but a firm grip on his arm stopped him.  Vito countered with a look of his own that made Hartwell back down just slightly.  He let go of his cook’s arm.

     “What do you mean?” Hartwell asked. “How could not doing what your told and not letting this kid out of your sight be just as well?”

     There was a hard tone to Hartwell’s voice.  To Vito it almost sounded more dangerous than angry.  It stopped the chef from speaking for a moment.  To hide his confusion he went and got the smock and can.  He slipped past the quietly angry restaurant owner to put the can in the kitchen corner where it belonged then returned.  He had the smock and gloves in hand.

     First he draped the smock over his right shoulder so he could have his hands free.  He then blew into the gloves first one then the other.  Shaking his head he handed them over for Hartwell to examine.  While he was looking for himself Vito continued to press his point.

“Boss that kid had to be sick to make his blood look like that.  You don’t want that in a restaurant.  You put a lot of money into this place boss and you don’t want to lose that money.  I don’t know why you mad about this but you gotta listen to me.  I been in this business my whole life.  One sick kid in the kitchen and you can get shut down.”

     Hartwell took a deep breath.  By the time he let it out if he was still angry it did not show.  Vito knew though, he’d worked for this man for almost five years and he knew.

     “Vito you’re a big part of why this place is a success.  You know what you’re doing that’s why I listen to you and what you’re saying is logical.  What I used to do for a living involved logic too but it also involved instinct.  There was something wrong with that kid other than sickness.  To be honest I spotted it the day he started.  If I can I’m going to find out.”

     Leaving the chef to return to hovering over the action in the kitchen Hartwell walked through the kitchen and slipped into his office.  Alone in the small quiet space, the echoes of the culinary action provided a counterpoint that assisted concentration instead of distracting.  He sat at the desk and turned on the computer.  Once the system was ready he typed in two words clicked go and waited.

* * *

     The boy slipped into the boarding house quietly.  The house was a small one containing two other tenants and the owner.  The landlady was sitting in the living room along with one of the older tenants.  The landlady spoke as he entered.

“You okay kid?  You’re home kind of early.  Ya didn’t get fired I hope.”

He held up his bandaged hand.

“I must get stitches before I continue to work.  I do not know where though.”

“That’s easy,” said the other tenant. “Just go to the clinic at Sacred Heart hospital.  It’ll be a long wait but they don’t charge.”

The boy looked at his hand for a long moment.  Almost as an afterthought he nodded his understanding.

“I think I am much to tired to go tonight.  I will go in the morning.”

Leaving his housemates with puzzled looks the boy walked up the stairs to his room.  He entered the bathroom and closed the door.  He put the stopper in the sink and turned on the cold water.  As the sink was filling he pulled off the bandage he had quickly applied in the rush of dealing with the supper hour dishes.  Contact with water had not been permitted in the kitchen due to something they called a “Health Code”.  It had made the hour he had worked until he could slip away painful in the extreme.

Wincing slightly at the deepness of the cut he turned off the water and submersed the hand.  It hurt.  It hurt a lot.  He’d wanted to try this in the sea instead suspecting the chemicals they treated drinking water with would cause this pain.  As close as the sea was there simply wasn’t time.  In spite of the pain the job was done.  When he brought his hand out of the water his flesh was completely closed.

He pulled the plug on the water and watched it run out.  Using the now unnecessary gauze wrap he wiped up any left over residue.  Being careful not to drip he moved quickly and silently to his room and closed the door.

The room was small.  No clothes hung in the closet or were packed into the one dresser.  The only thing that showed there was anyone staying in the room at all was the large sport bag full of his only possessions.  He pulled out a plastic bag tucked into one pocket of the sport bag put the wet gauze into it and stowed the material away.

Going to the window he looked out then opened the window as wide as possible.  The screen on the window moved just as easily as the window itself.  He grabbed his bag and threw it out to the yard below.  He then jumped out landing as easily as a child might land jumping off a step.  Shouldering his bag he walked away into the night.

A knock on the door at the civilized hour of nine o’clock brought the landlady to the door.  She looked at him for a long minute before speaking.

     “You got a reason for knocking?” she asked.

     “My name’s John Hartwell.  A kid who works for me lives here at least according to his job application form.  He cut his hand bad last night and I wanted to make sure he’d got it stitched.”

     The woman stood in the doorway in a way that let Hartwell know he was not being trusted.

     “You’re pretty attached to your casual help,” she said. “He ain’t here.”

     The woman started to close the door.  Hartwell casually placed a hand flat on the door stopping her.  Confused the landlady looked at the door as if wondering how a middle-aged man in a sport jacket could so easily stop her from closing him out of her home.  The woman looked from the door to the man who held it open with almost no effort and frowned. 

     “Where is the kid,” Hartwell spoke quietly but the woman wasn’t fooled. 

There was an “or else” in that voice, unspoken but unmistakable.  She backed away from the door and let the pressure of his hand push it all the way open.

“Middle bedroom upstairs,” she said.

Hartwell entered and hustled up the stairs moving almost silently.  Brows raised slightly at this performance the landlady stayed by the open front door waiting for the reaction.  She didn’t wait long.

“What are you talking about there’s nothing here!” he bellowed down the stairs.

Stomping roughly on the steps Hartwell returned to the front door.  The landlady gave him a thin satisfied smile and crossed her arms.  Even if you gave in you could sometimes still win.

“I went in to change the sheets about five minutes ago and found him gone.  Now I’d like you gone or I’m callen the cops.  That’s just an ordinary kid and I think he’s scared of you.  Considering this performance probably for good reason.  So get the hell outa my house.  You come back I’ll have the law on you.  Go on git!”

The landlady slammed the door closing out the strange visitor.  Trembling slightly she made tea and adding a healthy drop of gin.  It was far to early for this kind of medicinal assistance but encounters with certain kinds of people simply did not allow for anything else.

                    * * *

     It was just before the supper hour rush.  Hartwell entered his office and sat at the desk.  As always the drifting sounds and smells of this business that came to him in this sanctuary gave him a feeling of permanence and safety.  In this case it let him remember a life that was not secure, only technically permanent and frequently very unsafe.  His hand hovered over the phone for a long moment then he picked it up and dialed.

     “Hi.  It’s me Hartwell.  Yeah I'm good.  I got a problem though.  Just listen for a sec will you.  You’re going think I’m crazy but I swear this really happened.


                         * * *

     The bus station was a sea of satisfied young faces; tanned, sunburned and in most cases very tired, but satisfied.  On platform one stood one of the few exceptions.  He was pale, serious and looked at least two to three years younger than most of the other travelers.  Hefting his large heavy sport bag over his shoulder he was the first on the bus. 

He took a seat next to a window near the back and squeezed his bag between his legs.  Following behind this solitary traveler was a mob of young people in their late teens and early twenties.  It was the end of the March break holiday and these lucky Canadian kids who'd had the money for a holiday in the sunny south were on the way home.

     "Hey, dude you should let the driver put that in the luggage thing."

     The pale young man looked from the window to the youth who'd taken the seat next to him.  There was a short pause before he spoke as if he were searching for the right words to say.

     "There are things in here I do not want to lose.  The compartment below does not seem very secure," he said.

     The boy who spoke first shrugged. 

     "I guess you got a point there.  I'm Todd, majoring in history at University of Toronto.  Although I'm headed toward teachers’ college eventually."

     The friendly Todd held out his hand and the pale young man shook it tentatively.  His blue eyes scanned the bus and lit on the back of a school jacket. 

     "I am attending Queens University.  I have an interest in computers," he said.

     The bus driver got into his seat and closed the doors.  A moment later the bus began to move and a short time later it drove onto the highway and began moving north.

                         * * *

     The bus reached the Canadian boarder and the immigration officer stepped aboard.  He yawned loudly as he entered studying the passengers sleepily.  It appeared to be loaded almost exclusively with university students many with sunburned noses from too much Florida sun.  Not a few of them were asleep.  Those who weren't dozing were crabby from the tedium of bus travel. 

     "OK, Kids.  I'm tired too so let’s do this the fast easy way.  Everyone hold up your passports."

     A sea of arms launched themselves into the air as the bleary-eyed official walked two thirds of the way down the length of the bus.  A young man leaning against the window curled over a bulky sports bag apparently deeply asleep.  The officer locked eyes with the sleeper’s seatmate.

     "That a friend of yours?" he asked.

     "Not exactly.  We met on the bus.  He goes to Queens.  He nodded off about a half-hour ago.  We've spent most of the time talking computers.  That's his major.  I think he may have debugged my hard drive without even seeing it."

     The custom’s officer gave a wide smile.

     "I know the type,” he said. “OK, that’s good enough for me."

     The customs official left the bus and in moments it passed on over the bridge that marked the boundary between the United States and Canada.  The moment the bus entered Canada the sleepy young man's eyes slowly opened and he looked out the window. 

     The young man's tense shoulders relaxed noticeably.  He mouthed words his seatmate did not hear and could not possibly have understood even if he had.

                         * * *

     The bus pulled into the terminal in Toronto.  It was now more than half-empty.  The pale young man stood and exited and wandered through the station.  The clock read midnight.

     It was raining.  Outside in front of the terminal he stood face up into the sky eyes closed.  The water was dirty with the filth of the city but it was wet and cool.  Then a voice startled him out of his near trance. 

     “I have a better way to take a shower if you want.”

     The pale young man looked in the direction of the voice and saw a woman.  She was wearing a raincoat with a hood.  A name tag on her coat read "STREET HAVEN YOUTH HOSTLE"

     “Hi.  My name's Ann Jacobs.  You look a little lost.”

     Looking uncomfortable at being caught simply enjoying the rain the young man looked around as if wondering which direction he should escape in.

     “I am new to this city,” he said.

     “I bet.  That’s why I’m here.  Got a safe place to stay?  If you want to come with me I can take you to a good one.  It’ll be safe and you can have that shower I mentioned.”

     The young man hesitated.  Ann smiled like a woman used to overcoming trust issues.

     “No strings attached.  If you don't like it you just go.  I mean come on look at me.  Do I look dangerous to you I’m old enough to be your mother.”

     He hesitated for only a moment longer then nodded slightly.  It was a subtle agreement that brought an even warmer smile from the dripping woman in front of him.

     “Our chariot awaits.”

     She led him to a waiting van with the same lettering that was on her nametag and they drove away.  A short twenty minutes later found him following a large rough man with deep understanding eyes.  This was Jack Pennelli founder of Street Haven.  The room they walked through was large with cubicles that held a bed a small lamp on a side table and a small lockable cupboard.

     He handed over the key to the cupboard which hung on a strap long enough to wear around his neck.  When he spoke it was quietly, respecting the room full of sleepers.

“Here you go kid.  It’s not much but follow the rules and its yours for as long as you need it.”

     For a long time the boy simply sat on the bed listening to the sounds around him.  Moving quietly he placed his bag into the cupboard, then locked them away.  He looped the key around his neck and stretched out fully clothed on the bed.  After a very long time his eyes drifted closed.



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