Kaleb rolled over and stared at the sunlight shimmering through the green leaves of the hedge he was sleeping in. What time was it? Traffic rolled by just inches away from him, shaking the leaves around him. He reached up and brushed a leaf out of his shaggy brown hair and began to struggle out from between the tangled twigs, finally emerging into blinding daylight. A passing pedestrian stared at the strange figure in ragged clothes covered in grass stains, but Kaleb paid him no mind. Now, breakfast. Where should he look for it? He felt in his pocket and pulled out all the money he had. Fifty cents. Enough for a Coke or some Ramen noodles, not both. He set off walking fast to the nearest store. It was a routine by now, panhandling, stealing, going hungry half the days – and he had just passed his sixteenth birthday.
At the store, a boy in a dirty sweatshirt and ragged jeans was crouched by the door smoking a cigarette. He stood up as Kaleb came near, “Hey.”
Kaleb nodded, “What’s up?”
“Found some newbies down at the park this morning.” He jerked his head in the direction of the city park. “They slept under a picnic table. Two boys, thirteen and eleven years old.”
Kaleb ran a hand over his face wearily, “Alright, give me a moment. I was just about to pick up breakfast.” He went into the store bought the noodles, then stopped at a Macdonalds on the way to the park for a Styrofoam cup of hot water. He sat on a curb in the parking lot to eat the noodles, sharing them with the other boy – it wasn’t even close to enough to fill the aching hole where his stomach should have been.
The park was nothing more than a group of trees with a couple tables set between them. On one of the tables, two boys were hunched sleepily, watching the traffic pass with bleary eyes. A seventeen-year-old boy was leaning against a tree next to them, his eyes bloodshot from smoking Marijuana. Kaleb greeted him, “Hey Sam. You got the details?”
Sam straightened, “Yeah, ran away from their home two days ago and hitched a ride here. Their dad is hammering them at night, so they say they ain’t going home. They’ve been reported missing to the police.”
The three older teens held a quiet conference a few yards from the kids, trying to decide what to do. If they helped the boys, they could be turned in for harboring a fugitive. It was a thin line that they walked every day and especially every time another runaway turned up in their turf. Kaleb walked over to the table, “Hey listen up, kiddos. I been on the streets since I was twelve; it ain’t a picnic. Is there any home at all you can go to? A grandma, aunt, uncle, sister, brother – anything?”
The younger boy remained staring straight ahead without acknowledging Kaleb’s presence, but the older one shook his head no. Kaleb sighed, “Surely you can think of something. Listen, you may think this life is some kind of adventure, but I swear I ain’t here for the fun of it. I wish I had a house to go to, but I don’t. Is there anywhere, ANYwhere you can go?”
Both boys were silent. Kaleb put a foot up on the bench and leaned forward, his elbow resting on his knee. “Look, you hungry?” Both boys nodded. “Then get used to it. You’ll be that way all the time. Look at my shoes, tied together with string. Look at my clothes, ripped and covered with green stains from sleeping in the hedges. Is that how you want to look? Talk to me, what you planning?”
The older brother hesitated and looked at his brother, then answered finally. “My grandmother lives about an hour south of here.”
Kaleb sighed in relief, “You have her number?”
The boy nodded, “But, I never called her before. Could you call her?”
Kaleb raised an eyebrow, “Me?”
The older teens behind him snickered. “Come on, you scared to talk to the kid’s grandma?” Sam called.
Kaleb scowled, “Fine, I’ll call her. Someone cough the change for the phone.”
A moment later, he was holding a scrap of paper and tramping to a nearby shop that had a pay phone.
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