Editor’s note: This is the final revision of a story that White Wolf published in Destiny’s Price. You can read this version and then go buy a copy of the book to see what the editor changed.
This is what a lit degree gets you- a shitty job and a four-pack-a day habit. It seems like coughing is the only thing I’ve accomplished since graduation. If I’d known what the damn things would do to me, I’d have chosen another vice! I’ve seen all my dreams and aspirations left in the dust. Just wanted a good, reliable job that kept me out of bankruptcy. Twenty years and half a lifetime’s worth of coughing, here I am, the maintenance supervisor for a rundown apartment complex.
Supervising this place means you’ve gotta be there to help tenants twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Each and every tenant has a complaint about their residence. For example, the lady in apartment 410 complains about a problem with the heater. This means going into the basement. I hate going down there. It’s dark and damp, with unidentifiable noises calling out from everywhere. Someone would think I’ve watched too many horror movies as a kid. Basements give me the creeps. I avoid going down into them at all costs. But, after fifty or so complaints and a threat to call the city, I decided to check it out.
With toolbox in hand, I take a deep breath and languidly venture down into uncharted territory. The flashlight provides me with little light so anything to be seen has to be close. Never did it occur to me that lightbulbs would make a good investment.
The storage area lays in disarray. All I can see is the chaotic pattern of boxes, varying in size and shape, along with tattered furniture covered in dustbags. Each item is carefully labeled with the tenant’s name and its memory laden contents. Faceted into each wall are three small windows covered with sheets. What little light does enter the room covers everything with an unnatural glow. Overhead, the labyrinth of pipework, copper and pvc, networks across the ceiling like cobwebs created by spiders.
I inhale a deep breath of musty, antiquidated air and begin to cough. You’d think the doctors and scientists would have come up with a cure by now. Ah, there it is, the criminal in question. I put the toolbox down and quickly give the patient a once over. Everything seems to be in working order. I don’t get it, what’s wrong?
The noise hits me sending a flashback of memories through my mind. All the horror shows I’ve ever seen, from Jason to Michael, come flooding into my hyperactive imagination. Slowly I turn my body scanning the room. The urge to bolt from the basement screams from every inch of my body. Curiosity has gotten the better of me. I have to find the cause of the noise.
That’s when I see her. Tucked away behind storage boxes hiding in a niche in the wall, next to some boxes. Scared her out of hiding. Scared me. I have to struggle to keep from choking on the phlegm arising into my throat. What transpired here during these few precious moments are enough to last me through the rest of my life. Her lessons (if one can call them lessons- taught by a child so young) are etched into my memories never to be forgotten. A student trying to survive in the school of hardknocks.
I point the flashlight beam directly into her face.
“What in the fuck are you doing down here?” I exclaim. “This is no place for a child to be playing around. There’s a lot of dangerous things down here. You could get hurt.”
Nothing. Only two blank eyes staring back at my face.
“Where are your parents,” I continue, choking back another round of phlegm.
Looking away from my eyes, she whispers, “It’s not my fault. Daddy never wanted me and Mommy got beat up by a badman in funny clothes, and I don’t want anyone else to take care of me.”
My God, I say under my breath, and so young.
After a long and awkward pause, I venture, “What do you mean a badman?”
“The badman my Mommy works for. He beats her whenever she don’t give him enough money. I got scared and left. She never notices me anyway.”
I throw out a couple more questions, “What’s your name, kid? Where do you live?”
“My name’s Katryn, and I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”
Smart kid, I think and continue, “Well, you’re going to have to talk to me. Especially if you want my help. Now…”
“I don’t need your help,” she says defiantly. “This is my home now. I am never really alone. I’ve got Sam and my dreams, they keep me company. Nobody else wants me.”
As she spoke I caught a flicker of sadness pass in her eyes. She’s afraid of living like this, in the streets. She misses her parents, and wants to go home. Pride and fear keep her from coming out. She doesn’t trust me.
“Don’t you miss your Mommy?”
“Nobody wants me,” she whispers again, struggling to hide the tears. “Once the police found me and tried to put me away but I stopped them. They won’t bother me or Sam anymore. This is my home.”
I shake my head at the mention of this being her home. This isn’t any place for a child to grow up. Frustrated, not knowing what to say next, I look at her. Cutest little thing. From the dim light, I can tell she is no older than twelve or thirteen. It’s hard to believe that one so young falls to the denizens of the street.
Dark brown eyes sadly peer out through shaggy, unkempt raven black hair which hangs in her face like heavy leaves clinging to a weeping willow. Her thin, frail frame shows the bones through her tattered and worn clothes. Clothes so old that the colors which once adorned them have almost been cried out. She doesn’t wear shoes.
How long has she been away from her home? I grow angry. How can our society allow this to happen. To anyone. This could’ve easily been me. I am torn between offering to help her get away from all this and leaving her there to fend for herself. Nobody wants their life to be like this. But, who wants to help them? No one wants to take on the responsibility for people like her. If the situation were reverse, would someone do the same for me?
She owns few possessions. A faded yellow blanket (supplied with holes eaten by rats) is her only protection from the harsh cold. The blanket is carefully laid in a heap on the concrete carpet. Her most treasured prize of all is a love-worn brown teddy bear. A bear without its button eyes is her sole companion. Altogether an image not too pleasing to the eye.
Remembering that I placed a sandwich in my toolbox, I take it out and offer it to her. Pausing at the gesture, not knowing whether to trust me or not, she slowly reaches out to take the plastic-wrapped sandwich. Our hands touch and in that brief instant our lives joined.
Then she says something that I will never forget, “I can see death on you. It stains your colors.”
Slightly taken back, and a little surprised I reply, “What did you say?”
“The death, your cough. You should be more careful of what you put inside you.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was it a joke? Some childish vision, dreamt up by this homeless vagabond. It makes me uneasy. She makes me uneasy. She’s not natural, my gut screams to me. I need to get away.
“Uh… sure Katryn. Whatever you say. Hey look here’s twenty bucks. I know it’s not a whole lot, but it’s all I’ve got. Why don’t you go and get a decent meal, maybe go to a shelter. Living down here isn’t the greatest of places.”
She declined to accept the money. The desire to survive on her own conflicts with the need for help. Shrugging, I put the money back. Still wish she would have taken it. It’s the least I could do to help, without getting in too deep. I take one last look at her before heading back up into reality’s playground.
Later on, I go back downstairs, just to check up on her. Nothing. Maybe she found her way out. Maybe my talking with her helped her to escape the horrors of life in the gutter. She taught me a lot about life in that moment we spent together. Unspoken words can mean a lot to one who’s down and out. Companionship and comfort is denied and alien to them, and must be offered on our behalf. It will always be her eyes, silent and sad, filled with expression, constantly wandering- looking for escape, that I will always remember. She gave me something that no money could ever buy.
Then I realized I hadn’t coughed in several hours.