"The people passed him easily, none really stopping and caring, because homeless people in New York weren't exactly uncommon. Only a few people who were untainted by society spared him a few sympathetic and sorrowful glances." Inspired by 'Nobody's Home' by Avril Lavigne.
It was a typical night in New York. Stars bleached out by too much fluorescent lighting, cars honking and roaring while they revved up at traffic lights, the bustle of people all huddled up in colourful coats, eager to get back to the lazy heat of their homes. The air was filled with visible vapors, being whipped away from people's mouths. The trees were spider-like and glistening with ice.
The teenaged boy soaked in the brief warmth of a nearby bakery when the door swung open. The mouth-watering smell of cake and other baked items made him shiver even more in longing.
When was the last time he tasted the sweet delights of a pastry, he remembered not.
The night was as cold as the last one, and the night before that one, and before that one. His blanket was unmistakably frayed and worn, almost pleading to be left in the trash. But he clung to it like it was a sacred promise he meant to keep.
The people passed him easily, none really stopping and caring, because homeless people in New York weren’t exactly an uncommon sight. Only a few people who were untainted by society spared him a few sympathetic and sorrowful glances, shrinking in to their coats. An even smaller amount of people dropped some spare cents in the threadbare hat laying on the floor a couple of inches from his legs.
He stared at the moon, which was round and succulent, silently asking him to take it. But for warmth, food, or company, he didn't understand.
Someone poked his shoulder.
He turned his head slightly, looking to see who had interrupted his reverie.
A little girl of no more than five years was peering at him curiously, like an experiment gone awry and likely to have interesting results.
Another girl of approximately the same age as himself - not yet twenty, but close - grabbed the little one's wrist. Her dark hair was crammed in to a poppy-red beanie.
"Lilah!" the girl with the red beanie cried. Then she looked at the boy. Her eyes were a sparkling topaz-brown color. "I'm so, so sorry if my cousin bothered you. She's not one for listening to others."
The boy shrugged, because a lot of children looked at him curiously. They didn't seem to quite understand why anyone would be out on the streets in this weather when they could go back to a warm room and hot food.
He would gift anything to anyone who gave him a warm room and hot food right now.
The little one - Lilah - looked at him inquisitively, with eyes that mirrored her elder cousin’s in colour and size. "Why aren't you going home to your mommy?" she asked, surprised, as if unable to comprehend why. "Don't you feel cold?"
"No, I like it outside," he replied untruthfully, but gently. "And my mommy – my mother isn't at home, so I'm going to find her."
The red-beanie girl looked lost, torn between towing her cousin away from what the boy knew she thought was a weird stranger, and staying for a while, maybe to try and understand if he was really all that strange after all.
"Do you know where she is?" asked Lilah.
He smiled. "Yes. But I'm not supposed to tell anyone."
"Oh, oh!" Lilah squeaked, beaming with childish excitement. "A secret! Oooh, please tell me, sir, I won't tell ane-ee-one.” She enunciated the word clearly. “Promise."
"Lilah - " the elder girl said cautiously, eyes flickering anxiously to the boy, but he waved her off.
"It's fine," he told her reassuringly, and turned to Lilah. Wind trickled down the back of his weathered coat. "Promise you won't tell anyone?"
Lilah stuck out her crooked pinky. "Pinky promise." As if it were the most solemn oath one could take.
Glancing up at the elder girl to make sure it was acceptable to agree, he entwined his own cold pinky around Lilah's. Hers was warm and soft.
He gestured at the sky with his chin, keeping his eyes firmly on the little girl's.
"She's up there," he told her, solemn. "I think it was an experiment, you know? An experiment. It must have worked well, because she hasn't come back yet, so I want to follow her. But she told me I should just stay and wait.” He hesitated, before asking, “What do you think I should do?"
Lilah tilted her head, again, contemplative. She gazed up at the sky with her eyebrows furrowed.
The cousin with the red beanie had unknown dampness in her eyes.
"If your mommy told you to wait," declared Lilah, authoritative, "Then you should listen to her."
The boy looked at her for an everlasting three seconds, sapphire fixed in topaz. Lilah looked earnest, fair hair pulled back in a blue ribbon. She looked like she had never known unhappiness, never understood sadness, never quite got that everything in this world isn't always smiles and hope and wonder. Like she was still untouched by all the horror and tears in the world, and her innocence was a cape she wore proudly around her shoulders. A banner of untouched truths shrouded her from him.
"Okay," he finally uttered.
Lilah smiled. With snow falling on her hair, she looked as close to angelic as he'd ever known.
"Oh," said Lilah suddenly, and she reached behind her and tugged at the ribbon intertwined in her hair. It came loose in her hands, and her hair fell on her shoulders, only slipping past them by an inch.
She took both ends, and, while the boy watched, she carefully tied it around his wrist, tongue poking out the corner of her lips, fiercely concentrating.
Finally, she let go of the ribbon, which was a brilliant, royal blue against his pale skin.
"When your mommy comes back, give her this from me!" she cried. The boy could feel the electric sincerity in her eyes, and he would’ve given up innumerable lifetimes to borrow her innocence for only a day, if not just a cold winter’s night.
The elder girl was quiet, eyes full of remorse, and while he wasn’t very fond of pity, he didn’t mind.
"Yes, ma'am," he replied to the little girl, nodding steadily.
Lilah smiled, satisfied, as if she just wanted to make sure she had done it all right. She then tugged at her beanie-headed cousin. "Hurry, Sarah! Mommy is waiting!"
And Sarah spared one last glance for the boy, eyes shining bright like the irises contained sunlight, before going away with Lilah.
The boy watched them leave, fingers absently pulling at the ribbon around his wrist.
"Hey, sir. Sir, you need to move from here, you aren't allowed to stay here."
He woke up, startled, and looked in to the face of a policeman, who seemed impatient. He was underneath a quaint bridge in what must’ve been Central Park, surrounded by water and green weeds. The ground was damp and unwelcoming. He hadn't a clue how he had gotten there.
"Lilah?" asked the boy, hopeless - but his voice was croaky, worn, and old.
"There's no Lilah around here, sir," sighed the cop. "Now, if you would please find somewhere else to go."
The boy put up a hand to explain - and stared.
It was frail, shaky, sheathed in wrinkles.
"But - " sputtered the boy, who wasn't really a boy, it seemed, anymore. "I'm old," he whispered, unable to understand.
"Sir, you seem a little confused," said the cop, with a firm, but gentle hand on his forearm. He helped the old man to his feet. The other staggered, knees weak. "Let me get someone to help escort you."
The cop turned to his partner, who was leaning against the edge of stone bridge.
"Sloan, help the old man here," he said, as if the old man couldn't hear him. Sloan sauntered over easily.
"No, no, you don't understand," the old man sputtered, still with a youthful stubbornness, tugging at a faded, mangled ribbon of blue around his wrist. "I need - I don't- "
"It's alright, sir," said the man, Sloan, condolingly. "We'll find you a place for a while. Just you relax. We can find your Lilah, as well."
The old man finally complied, though still twisting the ribbon around his wrist. Sloan led him away from the cop, who watched them as they went, and then went up to a ginger-headed policeman, who had been studying them silently.
"Poor guy," sympathized the ginger cop in a vaguely Tennessee accent. He had recently moved from the south to New York. "Alzheimer's, d'you think?"
"Definitely," agreed the first. "He kept talking about this girl Lilah. Must be a wife or something."
The ginger cop's eyebrows arched. "Lilah," he mused. "Now that's real interestin’."
"Hi, hun’," said the ginger haired man, as he stood in the doorway of his kitchen. A sandy-haired boy and girl were playing on the kitchen floor with what resembled Play-Doh, but it was a murky colour, as if they might have dropped it in mud and mixed the pieces up.
(Which, they might've.)
"Hi," replied a woman, who was tending the stove, apron tied tight and firm around her waist. She danced around the children artfully, selected a red condiment from a row of spices, and sprinkled some across the heated pan. It sizzled delightfully. "Busy day?"
"Not really," shrugged the man. Toeing his shoes off, he let his coat fall on the floor, stepping with practiced movements around his young niece and nephew, who were over for the night. "Just movin’ some homeless people. There was a family of two near the subway, and this old man with Alzheimer's under the bridge in the park. We had to get someone to escort him away."
"How awful," sympathized the woman, sautéing the sizzling chicken pieces. A tendril of fair hair escaped her hair clip. "Are you sure the old man had Alzheimer's?"
"Quite," confirmed the man. "He was saying something about a girl called Lilah, which was pretty coincidental, isn't it, darling? Maybe you know him?" He nudged her playfully.
She swatted him away with the spoon, then kissed his cheek. Her lips were curved into a light smile, topaz-brown eyes glittering. "Just because my name is Lilah, doesn't mean I know him. Still, poor thing. You know I have a soft spot for the homeless. What was he like?" she asked.
"Blue eyes. Medium height. Looked a lot older than he probably was, too many wrinkles. He kept playing with this ol’ blue ribbon ‘round his wrist. Funny. Must've been from someone he used to know."