Rhea sighed as she hung up the payphone. It had been a shitty few days. After running from Brad and the Roachcrest, she and Martin had passed two nights huddled in the stairwell of a parking garage. Then Martin had started to cough. Soon, he shuddered with a fever. It became painfully apparent that they couldn't sleep rough anymore, and as much as they hated to do it, they had registered at the emergency shelter. Nobody ever wanted to stay there. The likelihood of leaving with all of your possessions was slim. It was crowded and noisy, and you had to be in by seven pm and out by seven am. But at least there was heat, and Martin had got some Tylenol and cough syrup.
But when seven am rolled around, the staff had told Rhea to get out and leave Martin behind. Seeing as he was ill, they were going to keep him there. Martin had been the only thing holding Rhea to sanity, and now they were going to be split up. Rhea lost it. She alternated between pleading and cursing, until she had been thrown out, bag and baggage. She didn't know if they would let her back in tonight. Completely agitated, she paced up and down in front of the shelter. She kept noticing a poster on the wall for some kind of help line. Telephone Angels. “We're here to help” was the simple statement. Help. Help. Help. Rhea had always thought that no matter what happened to her, she would never call one of those stupid lines. But she'd also never thought she'd use the shelter.
The wind picked up and seemed to cut right through her. She paced and shivered, wringing her hands. A youngish man in a suit and tie came her way on the sidewalk. “Get off the drugs, junkie!” he sneered as he passed her by. That was it. Rhea had to do something, anything. She searched her pockets and came up with a quarter. She marched over to the payphone and just as quickly turned away. Then she turned back, held her breath and dialed the number to Telephone Angels.
"Telephone Angels, my name's Jack sweetie. What do you want to talk about?" said the voice on the other end of the phone. Rhea hesitated. What did she want out of this, anyways? Soon enough, the do gooder on the phone had talked her into meeting at the Novia Cafe. At least she could get a meal out of this, Rhea thought, as she dragged her assortment of bags down the street to the cafe.
The Novia Cafe was just across the street from Memorial Park. It was a 1950's diner that wasn't trying to cash in with fake nostalgia. Simply, the string of owners over the years hadn't updated much of the decor. The prices too had rarely been upgraded, making it a a favorite with both young office workers and the down and out of downtown. At lunchtime, the cracked red leatherette booths and stools were filled with folks enjoying old fashioned milkshakes and cheeseburgers. At this time of day, though it was considerably quieter.
The bell above the door jingled as Rhea swung her bags through the door. Scanning the restaurant, she noticed a few old shopping cart bums soaking up the fifty cent coffee before they made the rounds of the dumpsters and trash cans. Then at the back, she noticed a man sitting alone. He was clean looking, nice jacket, but long hair. He was sipping on the largest size coffee the Novia provided. Could this be Jack, the do gooder? Rhea wondered, clutching her worldly possessions a little bit tighter. She hesitated, and considered turning back again. She didn't really relish talking about herself. And anyways, what if this dude was some kind of creep, like Brad?
Lost in thought, she didn't notice that the man had started to walk towards her, dragging his left leg just a bit. “Rhea?” he asked, and she jumped. “Who wants to know?” she asked, defensive. “I'm Jack. Sit down, sweetie. You said you were hungry. I'm buying.” Rhea half turned to run back out the door, but the smell of food was overwhelming her defenses. She gave up and warily followed Jack to the table. She sat, silent, across from him, eyes fixed squarely on the table. What was she going to have to give up here, and what was she going to get for it?
Jack stared at the small girl sitting across from him. She looked all of twelve, though he guessed she may be a little older than that. She seemed to desperately try to give off a tough attitude, but no matter what she still seemed like a cute little kid. How had she even made it this far by herself? He decided to try and find out. “Well, first things first. What do you want to eat?” The question was greeted with more determined silence.
Cocking his head downward to try and catch her eyes, he tried again. “Look, sweetie, I know you're probably feeling a little weird about this right now. But you called me and told me you were hungry, and I need to know what you want to eat.” Her big brown eyes glared into his. “Food.” Rhea growled at him. Jack tried very hard not to laugh at this.
“OK, that's a start. I'm going to get myself the all day breakfast special. Should I make that two?” Rhea stopped glaring quite so hard. “Yeah, OK. Scrambled eggs. And can I have some ice cream too?” she asked, more politely. “I certainly hope you don't want the ice cream on top of your eggs!” Jack wisecracked, and the faintest of smiles crossed Rhea's face.
Maybe she wasn't going to be such a tough nut to crack, Jack thought to himself. Maybe after she'd eaten something, she'd be in a better mood. After all, didn't ice cream heal all the ills in the world, at least for a little while?
As Jack ordered the food, putting particular emphasis on Rhea's ice cream, she started to feel a little more relaxed. He didn't seem like a creep or anything. And he hadn't tried to give her a Jesus speech, or worse, call the cops.
As the waitress turned to take their order to the kitchen, Rhea thought of one more thing she wanted. “Can I get a large cup of coffee?” she asked the matronly server. Before the woman had a chance to reply, Jack interjected “Don't you know coffee stunts your growth!” with a goofy grin on his face. “Asshole!” Rhea shot back, but she couldn't hide the smile on her face. This do gooder was growing on her, and fast.
Jack watched as Rhea tore into her breakfast like she had never seen food before. It always surprised him, the way these kids ate. He knew conversation was out of the question, until that plate was clean. It made him think of his own little girl, always such a picky eater- unless it was ice cream. Then, she inhaled it, bowl by bowl. He often asked her if she even tasted it, it was gone so fast. “Of course, Dad!” she would tell him. “Why do you think I like it so much?” He ran the heart shaped pendant through his fingers once again. It was time to focus on the girl in front of him, not the one he held in his mind, and in his heart.