“Thank you.” Sean smiled and handed the older lady her purchase. “That cabernet should go perfectly with the beef.”
His smile was returned as she took the bag. “You’re welcome, young man, and I appreciate the help. Your manager must be very pleased with your work.” She walked toward the front door and Sean shook his head, smiling to himself. His boss was indeed pleased with his job performance. He’d better be, since he was the boss.
The front door burst open and Katie raced into the store, huffing. “Sean! I heard shouts from the alley. I think someone’s in trouble.”
Sean’s heart began to pump faster. “Call the police and watch the store.” The words were barely out of his mouth and he was out the door running around the side of the building. He could hear a scuffle coming from the back of his store, curses, and even what sounded like pleading. Sean raced around the corner of the building and stopped, sliding a little on the ice before coming to a complete stop.
“You belong to me and it’s time you know that!” Two men were on the ground; one was definitely bigger than the other. The smaller man was pressed into the dirty snow, his pants pulled down, and Sean could see the pale skin on his hip. The other man seemed to be opening his pants while he held the other against the ground; a few spatters of blood colored the dirty snow.
“What the hell are you doing? Get off him!”
The man on top turned and looked at Sean, then sneered, “This doesn’t matter to you. Just walk away!” Anger dripped from his voice.
“The hell I will!” Sean raced forward, pushing the larger man as hard as he could, but he barely budged. Then his leg was grabbed and flipped out from under him and he found himself flat on his back on the dirty snow and ice, the air rushing from his lungs. Sean tried to get up, but his back hurt and he couldn’t breathe very well.
Then, to his great relief, he heard sirens, and the larger man got up and raced away down the alley, disappearing around the corner.
Slowly, Sean tried to move, his back sore and his breathing a little easier. “Are you okay?”
The other man shifted slightly and tried to pull up his pants. “I think so.”
Sean managed to sit up, still breathing carefully, his back painful, but functional, his lungs slowly returning to normal. The other man buttoned his pants and turned toward Sean, trying to get up. It was a kid who looked about twelve. Slowly, Sean moved and knelt next to him. “Don’t move. The police will be here soon.”
“No!” The fear in his voice made the air crackle, and he shifted away.
Sean saw two police officers round the corner of the building, racing toward them. The kid tried to get up, but his legs buckled beneath him. “No one is going to hurt you,” Sean whispered, trying to comfort the jittery kid.
As the two officers reached them, Sean got to his feet. “Sean, are you all right?”
At the use of his name, Sean recognized one of the officers as Sam Davis, one of his customers and the patrol officer for this section of town. “Yes. I got the wind knocked out of me, but he may be hurt.” Sean was more concerned for the kid than he was for himself.
The young man was trying to get up again and managed to stand. “Take it easy, son.” Sam’s voice was soothing and non-confrontational. “Are you hurt?” The kid looked at Sam, his eyes hard, saying nothing. “We can’t help you if you won’t answer.”
“I’m okay.” The kid sniffed and wiped the blood from his nose. “I just got a bloody nose.” Sam handed the kid a tissue and he wiped at the blood.
Sam turned back to Sean. “What happened?” Sean told him what he’d seen and Sam turned to the kid. “What’s your name, son?”
“Bobby.” His voice sounded so small.
“Bobby what?” The look on Sam’s face said “Don’t fuck with me.”
“What happened to you?”
Bobby shrugged and looked down at the dirty snow and slush.
“I can’t help if you won’t talk to me.” Again Bobby just shrugged and said nothing, but started to shiver in the cold.
“Sam, can we go inside?” Sean was cold and wet as he got to his feet, putting an arm around Bobby’s shoulders. “Come on; let’s get you warm.” The kid was shaking, and Sean thought it wasn’t from just the cold. Slowly, they made their way out of the alley and into the warmth of the store.
“Sean!” Katie rushed from behind the register. “Are you okay?” She stopped when she saw Bobby. “Oh, you dear thing.” She veered off, throwing her arms around Bobby. “Come on; we’ll get you some dry clothes. You must be frozen clean through.” To everyone’s surprise, Bobby allowed himself to be ushered away.
“What will happen to Bobby?” Sean winced slightly as he twisted, a twinge of pain in his back.
The other officer, who’d been quiet until now, answered, “He appears homeless. We could take him to Child Services, see if they can find him a home.” His name tag read Officer Johnson.
“We could, but he’ll probably just run away.”
That was Sean’s thought as well. Katie and Bobby returned from the back room with Bobby wearing one of Sean’s shirts and a sweatshirt he kept in back for unloading trucks. They were huge on him, but at least he appeared warmer. Bobby marched right up to the officers, looking them in the eye. “I’m not going back to some foster home, so you can get that idea out of your head.” Then he turned to Sean. “Thanks for the clothes. I’ll get them back to you.” Before anyone could move, he had the door open and was heading outside.
“Bobby….” He turned around and looked at Sean. “No one’s putting you anywhere you don’t want to go.” The door closed again, but Bobby stood just inside, arms folded across his chest, defiant. Sean turned to Sam. “Thanks for your help. I appreciate it.”
The officers looked at each other and then shrugged. “We’ll call you if we find anything.” Officer Johnson then left the store, but Sam stayed behind. “What are you going to do with Bobby?”
“He can stay with me until we figure something out.” Sean looked at Bobby; his stance and expression hadn’t changed.
A surprised look, followed by something else that Sean couldn’t read, passed over Sam’s face. “Okay, but call me if something happens.” Sean took the card Sam handed him and noticed that the officer had included his home number. “I’ll see you later in the week.” Sam turned, and after saying goodbye to Bobby and Katie, left the store. Sean saw him look back inside as he passed the windows.
Sean turned to a still-defiant Bobby. “Are you hungry?”
Bobby’s arms fell to his sides and his eyes softened. “Yeah.”
“You two go get something to eat; I’ll watch the store.” Katie looked Sean over. “But you’d better change first.”
Sean looked down at his clothes—they were covered in mud and salt. “Yeah, I’d better. I’ll be right back.” Sean went to the office and quickly changed into the spare clothes he kept in there.
After changing, he returned to the sales floor just in time to see Bobby and Katie talking quietly. As soon as they saw him, Katie stood up and walked to a stack of wine cases, where she got busy refilling shelves.
“We’ll be back in an hour.” Katie waved as she worked. “Come on; let’s get some lunch.”
Bobby followed Sean to the deli down the street, passing other stores. At the door, Sean ushered Bobby inside and up to the counter. “Order what you’d like.” Bobby looked over the menu board, but then stepped back, signaling for Sean to order. Sean placed his order and Bobby said he’d have the same. When the food came, Sean led them to a table and set down the sandwiches. Bobby slid into a chair and attacked his sandwich, inhaling the entire thing in three or four bites. “Are you still hungry?” Bobby nodded and Sean pushed his sandwich in front of him, getting up to order himself another. The second one lasted until Sean received his, and he started eating.
“Thank you.” Bobby leaned back in his chair, looking full.
“When was the last time you ate?” Bobby shrugged again. “Are you still hungry?”
“No,” Bobby said, his eyes looking down as if he’d done something he was ashamed of.
Sean finished his sandwich and downed the last of his coffee. “I need to get back to the store.” Bobby nodded again, got up, and followed Sean out of the deli. Sean turned toward the store. It took him almost a minute before he realized that Bobby wasn’t with him. Turning around, he saw the kid down the street, his head bowed low against the cold, walking the other way. Sean turned around and tried to catch up. Thank goodness Bobby was walking slowly, because Sean’s back hurt when he tried to walk too fast. “Bobby….” The figure stopped and looked around, allowing Sean to catch up. “Where are you going?” The kid’s blue eyes looked up at Sean, but his only answer was the now-familiar shrug. “Come on back to the store.” Bobby looked at Sean, staring into his eyes. Finally he breathed deeply, letting out a sigh before walking back toward the store.
The wind was picking up as they made their way to the store. Sean noticed that Bobby was wearing only a light jacket over his clothes; he had to be freezing. When they reached the store, the warmth felt wonderful. Sean’s back was hurting, but he knew there was plenty of work that had to be done.
“Did you have a good lunch?” Katie called from behind the register, where she was straightening up the bags and cleaning up.
“Yes, we did.” Sean shrugged off his coat. “It’s really getting cold out there.” Sean put his coat behind the register and offered to take Bobby’s, but he shook his head and Sean didn’t push. “Bobby, would you help me?”
Bobby nodded and Sean led the way to the back room. “Could you put these cases on the cart?” Bobby smiled and nodded, lifting and stacking the cases of wine on the cart. Sean’s back was still hurting from the fall earlier and he knew there was no way he could lift the cases. Once they were all loaded, they wheeled the cart onto the sales floor.
Katie was helping customers and Sean didn’t disturb her. Instead, he had Bobby lift the cases off the cart, and he stocked the shelves. They worked together quietly for the next several hours, getting all the shelves stocked. At closing time, Katie went home, wishing both him and Bobby a good night. Sean emptied the register, placing the receipts in the safe, and made sure everything was closed up tight.
“Bobby, do you have a place to stay?”
He shook his head. “I can take care of myself; don’t worry.” That defiant look was back again.
“I’m sure you can, but you’re coming home with me.” Sean could be just as determined as Bobby could—hell, more so if need be. To Sean’s surprise, he didn’t receive an argument, but a soft nod of agreement.
After turning off the lights and setting the alarm, they left the store and trudged through the new snow to the car. Sean unlocked the doors and they got inside the cold car. He started the engine and cleaned off the windows while the car warmed up.
The drive home was slow, but steady, and at least the car was warm. Pulling up to Sean’s small Milwaukee bungalow, he parked the car on the street in front of the house and led the way up the walk. Unlocking the door, he led them inside, hanging up his coat and then asking for Bobby’s. This time, Bobby shrugged off his light outer garment and handed it to Sean. “Let’s get something to eat.” Turning on lights as they moved through the house, Sean led the way to the kitchen. “Have a seat; I’ll get dinner.” Sean moved through the kitchen, making a simple meal of eggs, ham, and fried potatoes. Once he’d set the table, he placed a full plate in front of Bobby before fixing himself a plate. Bobby’s arm was a blur, he was eating so fast. “Slow down. No one is going to take it from you, and there’s more if you want it.” Bobby’s eating slowed—slightly—, and Sean got up and poured them each a big glass of milk. “How old are you?”
Bobby mumbled, “Sixteen,” between huge bites.
“What happened to your parents?” Sean took a bite of egg as he watched Bobby stop eating and shrug.
“I don’t know. Never knew my dad, and my mom ran off two years ago with some loser crackhead.” Bobby started eating again.
Sean was floored. “You’ve been living on your own since you were fourteen?” Jesus, what a way to grow up.
“Better than living with a crackhead for a mother.” His expression was so hard, so cynical, that it was frightening, especially in someone so young. Sean didn’t know what to say to that, so he just nodded and continued eating.
They finished eating and Sean put the dishes in the dishwasher and finished cleaning up. “Let me show you to your room.” Bobby looked surprised, but followed Sean upstairs. “I’ll bring you some things to sleep in and put some towels in the bathroom for you.” Bobby just stood there, listening and watching as Sean pulled out some sweats and handed them to him. With another of his patented shrugs, he shuffled toward the bathroom. A few minutes later, Sean heard the shower. While Bobby was cleaning up, he went back downstairs, made sure the kitchen was clean, turned off the lights, and locked the front door. As he made his way upstairs, he heard the water stop. Smiling to himself, he went into his bedroom and got ready for bed. He heard Bobby pad from the bathroom to the guest room and then the door closed.
Finally relaxing, Sean climbed beneath his blankets and turned off his light. He’d just gotten comfortable, when his door opened slowly and then closed again. He was about to get up when he felt his covers lift and he realized Bobby was in bed with him. Turning on the light, he saw a naked Bobby, spread out on the sheets, looking back at him. “Bobby, what are you doing?” Sean threw back the blanket, going to his closet and taking out his robe before handing it to Bobby. “Put this on, please.” Sean turned away and he heard Bobby complying with his request. “Why, Bobby?”
The teenager looked down at his feet. “Nobody does something for nothing and since you didn’t ask for anything, I thought this was what you wanted.”
Sean shook his head, pacing the room in his underwear. “No, that’s not what I want from you.”
“Then what?” He genuinely seemed confused.
“What I want isn’t as important as what you want.” Sean stopped pacing, looking at Bobby. “What do you want?”
The look on Bobby’s face was one of complete surprise, like no one had ever asked him that question before. “I don’t know. To be warm, I guess. To have enough to eat.” He suddenly looked so fragile, like he was going to break. Sean wanted to hug him and comfort him, but he wasn’t sure he should.
“Why don’t you get ready for bed and get a good night’s sleep? We’ll talk in the morning.”
Bobby turned to leave, but stopped as he opened the door. “Katie said you were a really good guy; I guess I should have listened to her.”
“Is that all she said?” That really didn’t sound like her.
Bobby looked back at the floor. “She also said if I hurt you in any way she’d rip my balls off.”
Sean smiled. That sounded like the Katie he knew. “Good night, Bobby.”
“Good night, Sean… and thanks.” His door closed with a click and a few seconds later he heard Bobby’s door close as well.