I didn’t mean for anyone to get hurt. Not really. I just wanted to prove them wrong.
Mom and Dad were always nagging, always telling me I was “too” this or that, not good enough in school, not a lady, not proud to call me their daughter. They didn’t always tell me in words – it was in the stares and the eyebrow raises, too. I wanted to show them what their life would be like without me. Just for a little bit.
That’s how I ended up here, living on the streets of Manhattan, far away from my the rural heart of America where I grew up. It was going to be temporary.
But today marks five years since I left. It was a slow fade, each day seeming short until I would look back and realize the greater changes: my hair was longer, my face dirtier, and everything on me skinnier.
Other than that, today isn’t really any different than any other day. I wake up with a start. My eyes feel like someone rubbed sandpaper in them, but that’s not really unusual. Lack of sleep does that to a person. I sleep with my head resting on a balled up shirt, one hand balled up under it, clutching my pepper spray my parents bought me so long ago.In the other hand is the plastic bag of clothes tied to the other hand, and even with those precautions, I wake up every few minutes in a fit of anxiety. Being a lone female on the streets doesn’t give a girl a chance to relax.
I walk to the shelter for a shower, walk to a bakery a few miles down that usually throws their day old bread in the dumpster. Today the dumpster in the alley is empty. Darn. Old Sal must have gotten there before me. We have a sort of understanding that it’s a first come first serve thing, and that long red light made me later than normal, so I guess it makes sense. Old Sal was in the right, but still. My knees kept knocking together I was shaking so bad from the hunger. I couldn’t find anything in the dumpsters yesterday either.
I walk further, searching for more dumpsters and more forgotten bits of anything. I found a dirty gummy worm on the sidewalk, but that was it. I leaned down to pick up the candy worm, and when I straightened, there was this girl cop blocking my way.
“Miss, have you seen this man around here?” She holds a picture in my face. They always did that. Like because I was homeless I was blind, too.
“No. What’d he do?”
“Not my job to say.” She sounds so official, like she’s rehearsed that line, like she won’t take crap from anyone. But then she stares at me. She crosses her arms over her weapon-equipped belt.
“Where’s your family?” Her voice was quieter, less ‘I’m-a-cop-so-listen-to-me” than before.
I didn’t answer, but I start walking down the sidewalk. “I got places to be…” I mutter. It’s true. I do. I need to scavenge the dumpster behind the Chinese place before Old Sal and her posse beat me to the crumbs in that one, too.
My heart stops but I don’t. “What?” I ask.
“Rory Olsen. Missing person. Last seen five years ago, never came home after school. ”
“I don’t know who that is. Stop following me, lady.” I pick up my pace, but she’s still on my heels. I don’t have the energy to run.
I turn around and for a second I think I’m going to threaten the cop lady.
She whips a business card out of her pocket and hands it to me. “The number for the tip line is on there. You call it and tell them you know about the whereabouts of a missing person, they’ll tell you how to contact your family.”
I frown. Most cops I’ve met would’ve haul me to the precinct like an animal. “Aren’t you going to send in the tip?”
She shrugs. “That’s for you to do.”
A couple walks past us and she rushed off to ask them about the man in the picture.
I snatch the card and stuff it inside my sweatshirt before someone sees that I accepted something from a cop.
I walk on numbly. No had one ever recognized me before. It’s been years, and I always wear a hood.
I knew that this was only meant to be a scare to my family – just a week, maybe. My purse was stolen when I arrived in New York. I had no bus money. I tried to get a job, but no one hires a person without an ID. I knew my home phone number, but the more that time passed the more I knew I didn’t know how to go back. I saw my face on the newspapers that I stuffed my shoes with and on the telephone posts that I walked by. But soon the newspapers started reporting new missing persons and the posters on the poles faded. I thought my memories of home had faded too, but I was wrong. I remember all to well my childhood bedroom and my mother’s smile and my father’s mustache.
I realized I am still standing in the middle of the sidewalk holding a gummy worm. My stomach growls angrily but I let the dirty worm fall back on the concrete.
I think of Old Sal and all the others I’ve met these last five years. Edward, Tasha, Gwen, Bobbi, Pete, Arnie, that kid who said he couldn’t remember his name, and thousands and thousands of others I’ve either forgotten or I’ve never met. I never asked any of them, but it’s pretty darn safe to guess that they’re out here not by choice. They don’t have a family or home to return to even if they wanted to.
I feel the lady cop’s card poking my skin under the sweatshirt.
Maybe it’s not too late for me.