The Little Pipsqueak

© 2012 Matthew Templar

This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

This story is copyrighted by Matthew Templar, all rights reserved. Distribution, including but not limited to: posting on internet sites, newsgroups, or message boards, or in book form (either as a whole or part of a compilation), or on CD, DVD or any other electronic media, is expressly prohibited without the author's written consent.

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Chapter Four

He was actually in line at some mission, probably waiting for a meal. But he wasn't talking to anyone and looked really uncomfortable, nervous, his head down all the time. Imagine living like that everyday. Imagine not knowing where your next meal would come from, or not knowing where you'd be sleeping.

I know I was going through some rough times and it would probably last a while longer, but what did this little guy have to look forward to?

I started to walk toward him. He was so oblivious to me being there. But by the time I got much closer, the line had started to move again, and he was the next to go into the mission to get his meal.

So, I waited.

There were several people that were handing out brochures about their mission. One even invited me in to partake of their soup lunch. I declined but gave them a few bills to help them out with their ministry.

They explained that the people going in agreed to sit through a short service, which included a brief sermon. They also had tables that had information about other organizations to help their clients.

So, I waited longer.

When he came out, about an hour later, he was talking to some guy, someone that may have been working in the mission, is my guess, since he owned a truck. He wasn't dressed as poorly as the others and they both walked to a pickup parked near the front of the mission. The man opened the passenger door for the kid and walked around to get in the driver's side. I started walking toward them. The boy wasn't in any hurry to climb in; instead, he continued talking to the man as I approached.

"I'm not doin' that. That's gross. Look, all I want is a ride up there," he said, pointing to the hills just south of us. "If you think I'm gonna do that, then you're a pervert and outta your frickin' mind, mister." In any other situation, I'd have said that he needed to work on his social graces. But in this case, he was probably justified.

As I walked up to them, the man noticed me but the kid had his head down and his hands jammed in his jacket pockets. The man must have told the kid to scram or something, because as soon as the kid closed the passenger side door, the truck zoomed outta there.

The boy was shaking his head in disbelief, then turned and ran right into me. When he looked up and saw me, it looked like he was deciding whether or not to take off. He looked scared to me.

"Don't run, don't run! I just wanted to see that you were safe." I tried to sound as calm as I could. I didn't want him to freak out, especially after what he just went through with that guy.

He just stepped back one step and looked up at me, like in a daze or something. He barely came up to my chest so his head was bent back a bit.

"Okay, I know you've just eaten but could I interest you in some, say, dessert?" I was thinking on the run, myself. I had no idea what I was doing. I just knew somehow that I didn't want him in that area any longer than necessary and I didn't want him to run away from me.

"Why would you wanna do that, mister?" he asked without moving, but looking around at his choices.

"You know I tried to help you out the other day with those four guys that were attacking you."

"Yeah, well, I'da been okay. They're always trying something; stupid bullies. They never got me though, till that time. I can handle 'em."

"I'm sorry but it didn't look like it, so I thought I ought to help out, if that's okay."

"Um, okay," he said, as he jammed his hands into his pockets and lowered his head.

"I'd like to talk to you some more but I haven't eaten and thought we could go somewhere close. Any ideas?"

"There's a McDonalds around the corner, if that's what ya mean."

"Great! My treat," I said with some enthusiasm and started to walk.

"It'd hafta be, wouldn't it?" he said without emotion, deadpan, easily putting me in my place.

As we walked and I regained some composure, I told him he could have anything he wanted when we got there.

"Water'd be okay, I guess."

"I said anything. I meant it. I try to keep my promises."

"Well, if it's all the same to you, I'd rather not be owing you anything when we're done." His head was down as we walked across the parking lot and up to the restaurant.

"Son, what could you possibly have that you could . . ." I did not want to go there. I was so embarrassed that my mind flashed on what this young child might have been through.

"You're kidding, right?" he answered, looking up at me.

"I'm sorry. I guess I wasn't thinking. I don't know how to assure you that I had nothing like that in mind. I just want to talk. Honest."

"Yeah, well, I'll take my chances, I guess. There's others around in there."

God, I felt small. The little pipsqueak had pulled the carpet out from under me again and left me on my ass, figuratively, so far.

I ended up ordering a couple of Big Mac's and a Coke for me, and a chocolate milkshake and large fries for the boy, because he'd just had lunch, after all.

Looking across the table at my guest, he looked like he could be about twelve or even younger and had dirty brown hair. I was hoping it was brown, otherwise it was dirty enough to be about any color. He came to about my lower chest and was wearing that filthy baggy orange windbreaker, jeans that looked several sizes too big and like they were not long for this world and those shoes that were so tattered they were almost flip flops. I was pleased, though, that he'd gone back and found the other one.

He picked at his fries, then scooped up some chocolate shake with one and put it to his lips. He almost swooned when the flavor reached his taste buds. I found out later that he'd never had a milkshake before. In about five minutes, there was only a smoking cup and an empty fry holder in front of him. I'd already managed to unwrap my first Big Mac.

He actually cupped his chin in his hands, elbows on the table, watching me take every bite. Well, the first three.

I pushed the other one to him and he pushed it back, his head turned down once more.

"Go ahead. I never eat more than one. I really didn't order it for me."

He looked at me curiously and then it clicked; he was the only other one around for whom it could have been ordered.

"Right, mister," he said, opening the paper.

I watched to make sure he didn't eat the paper too. I hoped he knew not to. Kidding.

"Um, I'm Tim, by the way." I'd set my sandwich down and was working up the nerve to have a serious talk with him. I looked at him a bit too intense, I guess. I was expecting him to reciprocate.

"Yeah?" he said with his mouth full and while he actually looked up at me.

"I'm Tim?" I said, trying to pull an answer out of him.

"I heard ya."

"I was wondering what your name is."

"Oh-h-h-h. He he. Sorry," he said pushing the last three bites into his mouth at once.

"So, what's your name?"

"Oh, it's AJ. Well, it's Andrew James Vitale, but my friends, or when I had friends, call me AJ."

"And where do you live? I hope not on the streets."

"'Course not. Ya think I'm crazy?"

Yeah, well, he wasn't too convincing.

"AJ, I'm worried about you. This is no place for you to be."

"It's not so bad. I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, I can tell by the black eye from the other day. You're lucky you didn't get some broken ribs or worse from those jerks."

AJ was looking around nervously, like he was looking for someone, or a way out.

"Yeah, well, look, I gotta go. Um, thanks for the food and everything." He started to stand up.

I reached over and put my hand on his to stop him. He pulled it away so hard, he hit his stomach.

"What the . . .?"

"Look, I'm sorry, but I need to know you're safe; whether it's around here or wherever."

"I don't get it," he said, sitting down hard. "What's your problem? What am I to you?"

"I think you're just a kid who could use some help. Help to get outta this place and get you back home. I'm nobody, just someone that can't stand to see someone hurting or in danger."

When I said the word 'home', he bristled and sat up straight; a move I would become very familiar with in no time. Then he got this far off look, like his thoughts went right past me, missing me, as he looked like he remembered something very painful.

Then he started to stand again.

"I don't need this. You think you're so high and mighty, comin' to be my savior or something. Well, I don't need your help."

He walked out of there as fast as he could without knocking anyone down. I was right on his heels. He heard me coming after him and stopped to confront me in the parking lot.

"You don't know anything about me. You don't know about my family, about my mom. How could you? You . . .you . . ." He started to break down as I got to him. "You don't know how she died and left me. Just get away . . . yeah, dammit, get outta my life, you pervert!" He seemed to be trying to yell at me but his voice was being swallowed up by his emotions.

Then he just started to double over and bawl. I reached out and grabbed him. He shook and heaved, he even tried to get away, but he was too out of it to resist very well. And right in the parking lot of McDonald's.

"AJ, I just want to help," I said after a couple of minutes. "You can deny that you need it but it's a little obvious that you do have needs, my friend. If I can make those needs less pressing, I'd like to help somehow. I . . . it's a . . . something I need to do." It felt like that last line pushed its way out of my mouth. I couldn't have stopped it if I'd wanted to.

AJ stopped shaking and started to breathe deeply. It was almost like he didn't know where he was. He was totally vulnerable, compared to the boy that tried to be so hard, that I was coming to know.

"You can't help. It's too late for me," said the boy. He must have taken everything in him to say that. He showed very little emotion, especially compared to what he just went through.

"There's always something that can be done, son," I told him, thinking of my good friend, Dan, and his philosophy. "Believe me when I say, it's never too late. You don't ever need to give up."

"Easy to say." He shrugged out of my arms and stood up, looking around to see if anyone had seen his emotional outburst. He wouldn't look at me.

"I know. I said the same thing a little while ago. Okay, whaddya say we just make sure you have a safe place to stay for a few days or so; then we can work something out from there. I promise to work with you."

He finally looked at me like he was trying to read me, my motives, no doubt. In between looks, he smeared his dirty face as he tried to wipe away his tears. He first looked over at the mission, then turned to look off to the poorer side of the town and the hills behind it, I'm guessing where he might have lived and played. He shook his head in disbelief, then his head went back down again and he gave in.

"Um, okay. I guess I could try it. You gotta promise, though, that you don't turn me in to Children's Services. That's nasty stuff. They plunk ya, then forget ya, no matter who they give ya to. Huh uh. I ain't goin' through that again. I'll run for sure if that happens."

"I promise. But if it means breaking the law, we'll need to talk. I'm not risking that for anyone. We need to be legal. Okay?"

He looked at me again with those brown eyes, piercing. "Okay, then. Where exactly do you live?"

"No, no, no. I wasn't suggesting . . ." What? How did we get there?

"Oh, just a lot of talk, huh?"

He did it to me again, the little pipsqueak. He had me on the run, only my feet weren't moving, yet.

"Well?" he asked.

Okay, I had to really think this through. How was I going to substantiate his presence in my life? Wait! Why would I have to? It's my life. More important, it's his life that was on the line. What was I willing to commit to, to help out someone so desperately in need?

"Boy, the truck is this way. You need to pick up anything: clothes, suitcase or something?"

"You're kidding, right?" he asked, holding out his arms and looking down at his sad looking clothes.

I could tell that I would have to start getting used to the taste of shoe leather if I didn't start thinking before I spoke.

"We'll worry about getting you supplied a little later. Right now, let's get out of this area."

"Alright by me. Mind if I say goodbye to all my good friends?"

"Oh, uh, sure, of course. You have friends around here?"

"Ha! Yeah, right! I was shittin' you."

I quickly jammed my hands in my pockets to keep them from automatically going for someone's throat. At some point, much later, I came to realize I was setting myself up, over and over again. I seemed to be getting very good at it.

"Funny kid. Well, maybe that will change too, in time; the friends part, I mean." Of course, his personality would have to change drastically, but I kept that information from him for the time being.

As we walked to the truck that was a few blocks away, AJ kept looking back like he was looking for something.

"What is it, AJ? What are you looking for?" I said, stopping to get his attention.

"Hey, chill, dude. I was, uh, just looking for something, kinda," he said, stopping cold and looking at me, distinctly upset.

Once again, he looked down, jammed his hands into his pockets and walked past me.

Once again, I tasted shoe. I followed him until he realized he didn't know where he was going. Thinking that would humble him a bit was a ridiculous notion on my part. He just stood to the side, motioned with his arm for me to pass and kept a 'good grief' kind of look on his mug.

I opened the door of my truck on his side, then walked around to the other side to let me in. My truck was nowhere near the newest truck made. It was pretty plain but it got me where I needed to go and was easy to work on, most of the time.

Before AJ got in, he looked back again, shook his head and got in the truck.

I took a deep breath, without making it apparent, and calmly confronted the boy.

"AJ, it looks like something is back there. Now, you can deny it and we can go on our way or you can tell me what you're looking for and maybe I can help you find it. I'd like to."

He actually looked up at me, instead of into his lap. But then his head dropped again.

"It's nothin'."

"Please, AJ, let me help."

He sighed big time, like it was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

"It's that, well . . . can we . . .?"

"It's okay to ask, AJ, no matter what it is. The worst that can happen is we can't. But I need to know what it is you want."

"I know, I know. I was wondering if we could drive by our old place before we left. It's stupid, I know."

I reached to lay my hand on his shoulder and he immediately shrugged it off. That was okay. He wasn't used to people being kind, I'm sure.

"I think it's a great idea, AJ," I answered him, trying to show some enthusiasm.

"We can?"

"Yup. Where're we going?"

"Wow! Um, back there about three more blocks from where we were. It's over by the old park."

So, I turned around and headed back. We came up to an abandoned lot that was filled with junk of every description. Old rusty pipes, crumbling concrete with rebar sticking out of it, huge metal oil drums, but nothing kids should have access to. It looked really dangerous.

"'Kay, that's the old park," he said. "Then go down there and turn left." He was sitting forward as far as his seatbelt would let him. He seemed pretty excited for AJ. I could almost see the beginnings of dimples in his cheeks as his excitement seemed to mount.

But when we turned and came up to what was his apartment building, he quieted down tremendously.

There were three buildings in the next block and a half, and he pointed to the oldest, smallest and most rundown, sitting between the other two. His building was about four stories, compared to the twelve of the others, blocking out the sun to the rundown building.

"That was our, well, my apartment up there on three, in the corner," he said pointing up. His head sank as he said, "We can go now. I don't know what I expected. I guess I wanted to have good memories but there really aren't any there; never was really. Sorry."

"Nonsense, AJ. I wish I could do something to make it easier for you, anything at all."

"Heh, just sitting in your warm truck has been a treat, and . . ., and McDonalds was really swell, too. I guess I can go back now. It's okay. You've done enough."

"What!?" I asked. "I haven't done anything."

"Yeah, it's okay. Just let me out here. I have something I need to do, somewhere I need to go."

He kept looking up, toward the hills that bordered the city a ways behind his apartment building. There were some pretty jagged cliffs and huge rocks that made hills up to two hundred feet high in one place. That was Cryer's Point. Besides being a kind of Lover's Lane for the horny teens to hang out, and good views of the city and beyond, it had some strange stories spread about it, including the way it got its name during the Great Depression, when the bank owner, Douglas Cryer, went up there for the last time, the last day of his life. It made me shudder to think of that story. I don't even know what made me think of it.

But I could easily imagine kids going up there to just look out over the vastness around them and escape for a while; a place to be alone with their thoughts. I really didn't think it was all that wise to let AJ stew over the bad times. I wanted to make good times for him.

"Look, I can take you," I said, a little excited, maybe nervous. I was so afraid I was going to lose him. I hadn't even thought about the fact that I didn't even have him yet. I just needed to protect him. "I'll take you, then we can go home, AJ."

"Heh. That won't work. I just need to do this one thing, then everything will be okay." His emotion, such as it was, had bled to almost nothing. He didn't seem weak, just not enthused about anything.

For some reason, I wasn't convinced that he'd be okay. I had no idea what he wanted to do, or why, but I didn't think that right then was the time for whatever it was. Don't ask me why I thought that.

"Look, AJ, I'll make you a promise. If, sometime, after one night at my place, you still need to come back here, I'll bring you or order you a cab or however you need to get here. I promise, but tonight, can we just go home and see what happens? I'm exhausted, mostly emotional, I suppose but, yeah, I'm tired. How about you?"

"You are bound and determined to ruin my life, aren't you? Okay, let's do it your way for one night. But if I say so, I get to come back here, right?" he asked, pointing to Cryer's Point.

"I promise."

And we left.

It really wasn't even late enough for an early dinner. We'd just eaten lunch, but we were on our way home. As we got close to the edge of the city, I saw a Wal-Mart. To tell you the truth, I'd never been in it before that day. But the boy needed something to wear and some toiletries and I figured we could get them all there.

"We need to get a few things, I think, don't you?" I asked, pulling into the parking lot.

"I ain't goin' in there. They'll kick me out and I couldn't blame 'em. Look at me," said the boy.

"Oh, I think you'll be okay. They'll see what we're buying and know the next time you come here, you'll be looking real sharp."

"Yeah, right."

"Trust me. Come on. We need to do this and you are the main attraction. Hard to buy clothes for you if you aren't there to try them on."

"Wait, I gotta undress in that store? You gotta be kiddin'. No way am I doin' that."

"AJ, they've got individual rooms where they let you take the clothes and try them on. No one will see what you're doing. I'll even stand outside the door so no one will bother you."

"Oh, well, I guess that's okay then."

The next hour and a half was, surprisingly, really fun for me. AJ, though, spent most of his time drooling over the things he'd never had before, never even considered; some he never knew existed, I'm sure. Most he pushed away as though he didn't want them, but it was very apparent how disappointed he looked when they seemed out of his reach. It didn't occur to him that the things we looked at were all going into a cart nearby and, eventually, the truck.

We looked at some electronics too; nothing too big. A clock radio and a boom box, though not too big. Into the cart. We looked at towels and toiletries. Into the cart. Shoes, two pair, and socks. Into the cart. Slippers and some fun pajamas. Into the cart. All the other clothes he'd need for a while, too, including some for school. Into the cart.

But the funniest was when we picked out his underwear.

"AJ, I never asked, how old are you?" I kind of wanted an idea of what underwear he'd prefer.

"Um, I'm almost thirteen, uh, I think." He seemed embarrassed.

"Oh. You think? Well, one of the things we can do is find out exactly. Do you know when your birthday is?"

"Nope. It never seemed important to my mom or any of her boyfriends. She never had enough to do anything about it anyway. It was better to just let it slide."

"Well, your school should have those records. We can check with them."

"School? I, uh, never went. Mom wouldn't let me outside if she weren't home and she never wanted to go anywhere after working all night. Her boyfriends didn't care. I just stayed outta their way. That was when I was younger and I guess it stuck. 'S'okay. I didn't mind, I guess."

I tried very hard not to show any shock or repulsion at what he must have gone through all his life. My heart started to cry and I did what I could to keep it there - for the time being, I didn't let it surface. I'd had some practice lately, after all.

"Okay, what kind of undies do you like, young man?" I said with some levity, trying to get back to the fun stuff.

"Undies?" By then, he had his hands jammed into his pockets and was shrugging his shoulders.

"You know, underwear, boxers, briefs, whichever you prefer." I took a couple of steps and held up a pair of classic boxers. I almost reached over him to check out the size of what he was wearing, but I remembered his reaction when I tried to put my hand on his shoulder.

"Oh, shorts. Um, I never really had any. I think I remember having that kind over there a long time ago, but I was pretty little," he said, pointing to the white briefs.

"I think we need to pick some out, guy. I'll tell you what. Let's get one of each until you find the kind you like. You might like more than one kind."

"Um, what kind do you wear?"

Awkward. So this was what a dad went through at some point?

"I, um, I like these," I said, picking up a package of boxer briefs. "Of course, in the marines, they issued us baggy briefs or boxers, but they don't give me enough support. I don't like them, so I bought my own."

So, we guessed at his size. Had I known he didn't have any on, I would have bought them first. I picked out some plain designs, but I also picked out a package of briefs with super heroes on them. AJ was aghast. I almost laughed out loud.

Finally, we were ready to go. I thought we did pretty well, actually. However, he seemed really uncomfortable about the whole thing. I guess I was hoping he'd get into it at some point so we could bond or something, but it didn't seem like it was happening. However, when he saw almost everything we looked at, going into the bags as the clerk rang them up, his eyes went all buggy. That was neat to see.

"Wait! We can't get all that. I thought we was just gettin' one or two things. You know, like a shirt and jeans and, oh, yeah, undies. I thought we was just lookin'. I don't need much. Not that much."

"AJ, you've never had more than a few things at once, have you?"

"No. Not really."

"Well, kid, this isn't anywhere near what you should have. You're a growing boy and you need to have some things to wear for whatever you decide to do. This is the bare minimum, believe me. Besides, I don't like to do laundry all that often."

"Look, I thought our deal was just a night or so until you got tired of me. I know I'll have ta be movin' on sooner or later."

"Let's don't go there right now, okay? We've come a ways and we need to cover a lot more ground before we make any decisions. Let's wait for a while before we make any assumptions. Then we can worry about buying you a suitcase."

At first he gasped and then he smirked at my weak joke. I almost saw those dimples again.

We finished our purchases and made the trip out to the truck. He was pushing one cart and I was pushing one and pulling another. He wouldn't know I'd bought the fun stuff, the electronics, until we got everything into the house.

As we pushed our way through the parking lot, I heard the squeal of tires at the entrance to the lot and, of course, looked up. It was just an old, huge pickup that must have been used by the Forest Service. It was that color of green - ugly.

Then, as we were loading my truck, this same truck came barreling down our lane, as close to our cart as he could! Idiot! AJ didn't even seem to take notice but I was pissed.

The drive home was quiet. It didn't take AJ long to realize that he had no idea that I lived so far out. It was really only about ten minutes outside of our little town, but . . .

"Where are we? I've never been this far away before. Hell, I've never been outside of my neighborhood, really."

"We're about a half hour, forty minutes from your neighborhood. The town we're driving through is just the right size to have most of whatever we need. I go into the city about once every two weeks or so. Oh, look, there's the school you'll go to if you decide to stay a while."

"Oh, great, I guess." His head went down. All I could see was his bangs hanging over his eyes.

"Don't worry. Let's get comfortable and get you tested. I'll bet, as hard as your life has been, you've learned some important lessons along the way."

"Heh, yeah, but I don't think they teach those things at that school, or any school, for that matter."

'Yeah,' I thought, 'you're probably right.'

"But I'm sure you'll fit right in and even make some good friends."

"Sure. I can't wait," he said with his head down.

End of Chapter Four

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