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As the sun finally sank below the horizon, a lone figure sat, huddled into himself on the bench in the otherwise empty public park.
The chill of the late autumn wind stirred the few remaining fallen leaves, adding to the feeling of desolation.
The wind blew through the boy's light summer jacket as if it were nothing. But the young teenager didn't make any move to acknowledge the cold.
He was too tired to shiver anymore. All he could think of was the empty aching in his stomach.
It was getting to be the time of day when there might be some good pickings left in the garbage cans outside some of the restaurants.
It occurred to him that there was that 'other way' of getting food that some of the other runaways had told him about. They had told him that there were men who would pay him if he would do them certain favors.
He didn't see the point of thinking much along those lines. In the whole time he had been on the streets, no one had ever approached him asking for or offering anything.
After months of struggling to survive on his own, he couldn't seem to find a reason why he should continue to bother.
If he found food this day and somehow managed to survive the bitter cold of the coming night, he would just have to face the same dilemma tomorrow. And as winter approached, it would only get worse.
He couldn't find a reason to struggle against what seemed to be the inevitable. He was so tired of fighting it. Giving up would be the easiest thing in the world. He didn't have to do anything. He could just continue to sit on the park bench.
Just sit and wait for it.
If he waited long enough, eventually his eyes would close... never to open again.
Just three months ago when he had left his home, he somehow thought... or more accurately, he didn't think, he had just assumed that he would find a way to survive. The flaw in his ill conceived plan became evident almost immediately following his arrival in the city. The thing that he didn't expect, that he couldn't imagine, was that the people in the city behaved so differently from the people back home in the hills.
Since his arrival, it had occurred to him that he might already be dead. Maybe he was only a ghost, damned to drift through the mortal world, eternally struggling, eternally suffering. The people he passed by every day walked past him without ever seeing him. Even when he was right in front of them, they appeared to look right through him.
Well, one thing was for sure. If he was a ghost, he was a hungry one.
* * * * *
The boy was startled out of his thoughts by the sound and turned to see a man sitting on the bench next to him. The man was wearing a very nice overcoat that seemed tailored to match his three piece suit. The young teen only noticed this in the periphery however, the majority of his attention was focused on the half of a sandwich the man was offering to him.
The boy looked around quickly to be sure that the man was really talking to him, then said, "Yes. Thank you."
He cautiously took the offered sandwich, and after taking a bite, looked more closely at the man beside him.
The man was sitting quietly and eating the other half of the sandwich as he looked out across the park.
The teen vaguely recognized the man as someone he had seen before. The man was one of those people who he would pass occasionally, just a random face in the crowd that had turned up enough times to register as someone who belonged there.
Now that he had a moment to look at the man, he realized that he was actually sort of handsome. He was around thirty years old, certainly not over thirty-five. However, there was something about the way that he was gazing off into the distance that seemed to make him look older than his years.
The boy took another bite of the sandwich and marveled at the amazing flavor of the ham & cheese. Suddenly it occurred to him that he should be polite enough to at least make an attempt at conversation, since the stranger had been kind enough to share his dinner.
"I've seen you in the library." the boy said cautiously.
"Yes." The man said with his attention still focused ahead of him. "Also in the park by Central High School."
The young teen looked at his companion with surprise, not remembering having seen him there.
"The way things have been going, we seemed to be destined to eventually meet." The man said quietly, almost timidly.
The boy noticed an emotional tone under his companion's words that he couldn't quite identify. The man sounded... tired? Weary?
"I guess so." the boy said hesitantly, afraid that if he said the wrong thing, the friendly stranger might go away. "I'm Desi."
"It's nice to meet you, Desi. I'm Rafe." the man said and offered his hand.
Desi carefully accepted the gloved hand and shook it gently.
"It feels like it's going to be a cold night." Rafe said as he looked at Desi with concern.
"Yeah. It feels that way." Desi said reluctantly.
"Please forgive me if I've jumped to the wrong conclusion, but... do you have a warm place to stay tonight?" Rafe asked hesitantly.
Desi knew all too well that his pride wouldn't keep him warm, so he reluctantly answered, "No. I don't."
"Well, I have a spare room at my place." Rafe said carefully as he turned his gaze back toward the center of the park.
"Would you... I mean, are you inviting me to come home with you?" Desi asked in a quivering voice.
"Yes, Desi." Rafe said gently, then turned to look Desi in the eyes as he said, "I could really use the company, and you'd be welcomed."
Desi thought about the things the other runaways had told him about what the men expected from them. He looked at Rafe appraisingly, then realized that the choice had already been made. If he stayed outside on a night like this, it was very likely that he would freeze to death. It was literally a choice between life and death.
"Yeah. I'd like to." Desi said as he forced himself to meet Rafe's eyes.
"Good." Rafe smiled. "Then we should be going. It's really getting cold."
An involuntary smile crossed Desi's face as he nodded.
"Come on." Rafe said casually as he stood and offered his hand.
Desi took the offered hand and slowly stood.
"Do you have anything you need to collect before we go?" Rafe asked curiously, then at Desi's uncomprehending stare, Rafe clarified, "Like clothes?"
"Oh. Right." Desi said suddenly. "Yeah. Right over here. I'll just be a second. Wait right here."
Rafe smiled and nodded as Desi ran to the bushes behind them and retrieved a tattered army duffel bag that had more than a few denim patches sewn onto it.
"My car is just on the next block." Rafe said as Desi joined him at his side.
* * * * *
"I thought it was this block." Rafe said as he looked around slowly.
Desi stood at Rafe's side, not knowing what he could do except follow along.
"Let's try that way." Rafe said as he pointed, then started walking.
Desi nodded once, then fell into step at Rafe's side.
* * * * *
"I couldn't have gotten into town without it. I know I parked it around here somewhere." Rafe said in frustration.
Desi tried to suppress a smile.
"Maybe back that way." Rafe said as he started walking in a different direction.
"Do you lose your car often?" Desi hesitantly asked.
"Not often." Rafe said casually. "But when you go through the same routine, day after day, one day seems to blend into another and they all end up looking exactly the same. Some of the little details end up getting lost in the haze."
Desi nodded, being able to relate to the feeling from his own experiences.
"There it is." Rafe said with relief.
Desi looked at the car that Rafe was walking toward and realized for the first time that Rafe must have some serious money.
Even though Desi wasn't very interested in cars, he knew enough to recognize the Mercedes emblem; and from the condition of the car, he guessed that this must be a brand new, 1971 Mercedes convertible, and it looked to be fresh off the showroom floor.
Rafe walked to the passenger side and opened the door for Desi before walking around to get in the driver's side.
"I don't want to get it dirty." Desi said as he looked at the flawless chocolate colored interior.
"You won't. Get in." Rafe said casually, then sat down.
Desi cautiously climbed into the passenger seat and settled his duffel bag on the floor between his legs.
"You can throw that in the back seat if you like." Rafe said as he started the car.
Desi knew that his new friend, Rafe, just wanted him to be comfortable and that putting his duffel bag in the back seat was a very practical suggestion. But for whatever reason, he just felt more secure holding the few possessions that he owned close to him.
"Sit back and relax. I live outside of town so it's going to take a little while to get us there." Rafe said as he expertly navigated his way through the downtown streets of Columbus.
Desi nodded, then noticed the warm air starting to blow from the car's heater.
"Do you like bean soup?" Rafe asked casually.
Desi turned and looked at Rafe for a moment, then slowly said, "Yes. I do."
"Good. I was thinking that when we get home, you could take a nice hot shower to get warmed up and while you're doing that, I could make us some soup and some more sandwiches."
"That sounds great." Desi said with an honest smile.
Desi didn't know what Rafe was going to ask for in payment. But considering that just minutes before, he had been ready to give up everything, and let it finally end, there wasn't anything he could think of that Rafe could ask of him that he would refuse.
The other runaways told him that it wasn't that bad after the first few times. You got used to it.
"Do you have a favorite soft drink?" Rafe asked curiously.
"Um..." Desi stammered, then answered, "Yeah. Coke."
"I'm going to stop in at the store up here to get drinks. Is there anything else that you need?" Rafe asked casually.
Desi puzzled over the question.
He had nothing.
All he had known for the past few months was constant want and need.
And yet now that he was faced with the question, he had no answer.
"I can't think of anything." Desi said honestly.
"I'll be just a minute." Rafe said as he pulled the car to a stop in front of a small grocery store, then pulled the parking brake.
Desi watched in astonishment as Rafe got out of the car and left it running.
He looked around the parking lot for a moment to find that no one else was around, then at the keys hanging in the ignition. He wasn't a thief. In fact, stealing went against everything that he believed to be good and true. But in his desperate situation, he couldn't help but think about how easy it would be to slide over and release the brake and just... go.
Desi shook his head to dispel the thought and finally allowed himself to rest back in the plush, comfortable seat.
The warm air blowing from the car's heater along with the dull rumble of the engine idling lulled Desi into a very peaceful and much needed sleep.
* * * * *
"Desi?" Rafe said quietly.
"Yes?" Desi responded, then blinked in confusion. It took a moment for him to remember where he was and what he was doing.
"We're here." Rafe said gently.
"Oh. Okay. I'm sorry, I must have fallen asleep." Desi said nervously.
"That's fine. From the way you were sleeping, I'm sure you needed it." Rafe said with a smile.
"Yeah. I guess so." Desi said shyly.
"Come on. Grab your stuff and come inside." Rafe said, then opened his door to get out of the car.
Desi looked around and was surprised to see that they were parked inside a building.
It took a moment for his sleep fogged mind to surmise that they were in a garage.
When his gaze stopped on Rafe waiting by a door at the back of the room, Desi quickly gathered up his knapsack and got out of the car.
* * * * *
"This is the laundry room." Rafe said, as they walked in from the garage.
Desi looked around and was frankly impressed.
His mama only had a wash tub and a clothes line to do her laundry.
Rafe had a washer and dryer along with a wash sink all in a row on one side of the room. There was a work table, ironing board and a hanging rack for clothes on the other side.
"If you have anything that needs to be washed in your bag there, you can leave it in here and I'll start a load as soon as you're out of the shower." Rafe said casually.
"I'm pretty sure all of this needs to be washed. But you shouldn't have to mess with it. If you'll show me what to do, I can wash them myself." Desi said quietly.
"All I have to do is put the clothes in there and add soap. It's really no problem at all." Rafe said frankly.
"Okay. I'll just leave this here then." Desi said uncertainly as he placed his knapsack on the work table.
"Good. And when you're done with your shower, I'll get the clothes that you're wearing so they can be washed as well." Rafe said with a smile as he gestured to a door on the opposite side of the laundry room.
Desi nervously followed Rafe out of the room, realizing that if Rafe were going to wash all his clothes at once, he'd have nothing at all to wear.
He tried to quash the nervousness he was feeling and tell himself that this was the price to be paid for the food and, if he could keep from screwing things up, a warm place to spend the night.
"Here's the kitchen. It's pretty well stocked. You'll probably want to avoid the juice in the glass pitcher in the refrigerator, but you're welcomed to anything else you'd like. You can just help yourself." Rafe said casually, then gestured for Desi to follow him.
* * * * *
Desi's mouth fell open when he saw the next room.
For Desi it was like stepping into one of the old movies that his mom loved so much.
The room was huge and elegantly furnished.
The more he looked, the more there was to see.
Finally, the curved staircase drew his eyes upward to the walkway that encircled the room and led to the upstairs rooms.
His eyes continued upward until he was nearly looking straight up at an enormous crystal chandelier.
"That's beautiful." Desi gasped in wonder.
"You say that now. Just wait till it's time to clean it." Rafe said frankly, then smiled at Desi's look of amazement.
"Come on. You'll have plenty of time to explore later." Rafe said and motioned toward the staircase.
"How many people live here?" Desi asked absently as he tried to absorb every detail of his new surroundings.
"Just me." Rafe said simply, then added, "I have a housekeeper that comes in once a week to do the dusting and things like that."
Desi shook his head in shock, finding it nearly impossible to believe that anyone really lived like they did in the movies.
"This will be your room." Rafe said as he opened the bedroom door and stood aside.
Desi cautiously stepped into the room and looked around.
"I've never even dreamed of anyplace this nice." Desi said in a whisper.
Rafe smiled at the statement, then walked past Desi to a door at the other side of the room.
"This is your bathroom. You have soap and shampoo... everything you'll need. I think..." Rafe trailed off and ducked into the bathroom.
He returned a few seconds later and said, "Yes. There's even a new toothbrush."
Desi stared at Rafe for a moment, then whispered, "Thank you."
"You're very welcome." Rafe said formally, then continued more casually, "I'll be down in the kitchen when you're finished. Remember to bring down the clothes you're wearing so I can start the wash."
Desi slowly nodded that he would.
"There's a robe on the back of the bathroom door that you can wear while your clothes are in the laundry." Rafe said casually, then started for the door.
"Really, Rafe." Desi said quickly to gain his attention, "Thank you."
Rafe smiled and nodded before leaving the room.
* * * * *
As he was showering, Desi puzzled over the situation he found himself in.
Rafe was treating him better than anyone in his life ever had. A part of him was saying that he should just accept what he was being given and be grateful for it. And he was grateful. But he couldn't shake the feeling that something good doesn't come without a price. And as good as all of this seemed to be, the price must be something beyond his imagining.
Desi walked slowly down the curved staircase, holding his bundle of clothes in his arms and once again tried to absorb every detail of the incredible home that he found himself in.
* * * * *
"Great timing." Rafe said cheerfully as Desi finally walked into the kitchen. "If you'll drop those in the laundry room, I'll start putting food out on the table."
Desi slowly nodded, then walked through the kitchen and into the laundry room.
He noticed that his clothes had been removed from the duffel bag and were sorted into 'light' and 'dark' piles.
As he sat down his bundle, he saw that two dimes and three pennies had been removed from the clothing and were sitting on the table beside his empty duffel bag.
'I guess this proves that he's not after my money.' Desi thought to himself with a nervous internal chuckle as he turned to leave the laundry room.
* * * * *
"I hope you're hungry." Rafe said as he placed a pan of steaming hot soup on a trivet in the middle of the kitchen table.
Desi nodded as the smell of the bean and bacon soup reawakened his briefly absent hunger.
"Help yourself to the soup and sandwiches while I get our drinks." Rafe said as he walked to the refrigerator.
Desi felt a little bit uncomfortable serving himself, afraid that he would accidentally mess something up, but did as he was told and ladled himself a bowl of soup and took one of the sandwiches from the plate in the center of the table.
"Here you go." Rafe said as he placed a bottle of Coke by Desi's soup bowl and a glass of orange juice by his own. "I have mustard if you need it."
After swallowing, Desi said, "No. This is perfect."
Rafe smiled at the response, then settled in to enjoy his own dinner.
* * * * *
The pair ate silently.
Desi would occasionally sneak a glance at his host and try to speculate what payment was going to be expected of him.
"You seem nervous, is there something wrong?" Rafe asked curiously.
"No. Everything is great." Desi said a little bit too quickly.
"Have you had enough? You'll be able to come back in for a snack later if you get hungry again." Rafe said seriously.
Desi thought for a moment, not sure of what he should do or say. If he said that he was finished, then that might mean that it was time for him to repay Rafe for his hospitality. On the other hand, if he said that he wasn't finished and then tried to eat another bite of food, he'd burst.
"Yeah. I'm done." Desi said quietly, then quickly added, "The food was wonderful."
"I'm glad you enjoyed it, but honestly, I didn't do much more than open a can and turn on the stove." Rafe said quietly.
"Well, whatever you did, you did it perfectly because everything was great." Desi said with conviction.
"If you want to go into the living room and relax, I'll get this put away and start your laundry. It'll just take me a few minutes." Rafe said casually.
Desi nodded, then walked into the living room, feeling like a condemned man walking to his execution.
* * * * *
"How are you feeling, Desi?" Rafe asked as he walked into the living room.
"Warm." Desi said standing directly in front of the fireplace, very aware that he was only wearing a terrycloth robe.
"I'm glad." Rafe said as he walked to a winged back chair that faced the fireplace and took a seat.
Desi glanced over at him and didn't know if he was supposed to be doing something.
"Will you tell me why you're so nervous?" Rafe asked gently.
Desi struggled within himself whether or not he should say it, but since Rafe had asked the question, it seemed only right that he should answer it.
"I appreciate everything that you're doing for me. I mean, giving me food and a warm place to spend the night." Desi said slowly, hoping that some divine inspiration would come to him so that he wouldn't have to say the next words.
"But I don't know why you're doing it. I mean, I've heard some things, and if that's what you want, I'd do it. But I've never done it and I don't know how to do it. I mean, I guess I'm scared. But if that's what you want, I'll do it, I will." Desi babbled until he finally ran out of words.
"I think I understand. Thank you for telling me." Rafe said gently.
Desi looked at Rafe cautiously, not knowing what to expect next.
"Why don't you come over here and sit with me and I'll tell you exactly why I'm doing this and what my expectations of you are." Rafe said as he gestured to the ottoman before him.
Desi walked the two steps to stand before Rafe, then sat, being careful that his robe didn't open and expose him.
"Every day, I get up and go to work. When my day is done, I come home. Sometimes I'll go out to dinner or to a club, but I always come back here, to this. When I kept seeing you in the park and at the library, It occurred to me that I might have found someone as alone as I am. Then tonight, when the weather started turning so cold and I saw you in the park, it all came together in my mind. I thought that maybe, if I offered you a place to stay, we might be able to keep each other company and solve both our problems." Rafe said slowly.
After a long considering moment, Desi hesitantly nodded.
"And what I expect from you is honesty. If you're uncomfortable or unhappy for some reason, I'd like for you to share that with me so maybe I can do something to help to make it better." Rafe continued as he looked into Desi's eyes.
After a moment to consider the words, Desi quietly said, "I think I can do that."
"I thought you could." Rafe said with a smile.
"So you don't want to... you know, do that stuff... to me?" Desi asked hesitantly.
"No, Desi." Rafe said gently. "I promise that you won't have to do anything sexual to stay here."
"Thanks." Desi said shyly. "You're really nice."
"Actually, right this minute, I feel so selfish that I can barely stand myself." Rafe said frankly.
Desi stared at Rafe with surprise at the statement.
"Even though I may be helping you out of an unfortunate situation, my motives aren't nearly as altruistic as I would like. I was alone, so I took action to fulfill my own need for companionship. And in doing so, I involved you. Although I suspect that the result may improve things for you, at least to some degree, I still regret that I wasn't able to think of your needs before my own." Rafe said quietly.
"I think you're wrong." Desi said slowly.
Rafe looked at Desi with question.
"Look at you. You're rich. You're handsome. I'm pretty sure that you could pick and choose from dozens, maybe hundreds of people. All you'd have to do is choose one and if you wanted them, they'd be yours. But you chose me. An ignorant hoopie who didn't have the sense to stay where he belonged. I'm not smart or handsome. There's nothing that I could offer you that you couldn't get somewhere else. I mean, yeah, you were lonely, but instead of just picking someone, or a lot of someones, you picked me. A runaway who could rob you or even murder you in your sleep. You chose to take a chance and trust me. So you found someone who could really benefit from your help and then chose to help him, and hopefully, solve your own problem in the process. I think that choice proves that you are a good person."
"Maybe." Rafe relented, then said more quietly, "Regardless of my motives, I'm glad that you ended up here."
"So am I." Desi said shyly.
"By the way, what's a hoopie?" Rafe asked cautiously.
"That's what the town folk call hill people back where I'm from." Desi said quietly.
"Where is that?" Rafe asked curiously.
"West Virginia." Desi said shyly.
Rafe could tell that Desi wasn't comfortable with this turn in the conversation. "You look like you're going to be ready for bed soon, so I should tell you about what to expect tomorrow."
Desi looked at Rafe with question.
"I have to work in the morning, but then I'm off for the weekend. I know that I need to take you shopping for some new clothes, but maybe you could be thinking about what else you'd like to do." Rafe said with a gentle smile.
"You don't need to buy me any clothes. Once mine are clean, they should be okay." Desi said hesitantly.
"There's something going on at a club in town tomorrow night, and, if you're willing to go, I'd like to take you with me. You'll need a different style of clothing for the club." Rafe said frankly.
"But I just turned sixteen. They probably won't let me in." Desi said cautiously, looking for Rafe's reaction.
"It's a members only club. If I bring you, they'll let you in." Rafe said with certainty.
"Um, yeah. I mean, as long as no one will mind if I'm there, I'd be willing to try it." Desi said a little bit nervously.
"It will be fine. But if you find out that you don't like it there for some reason, all you'll have to do is say the word and I'll bring you back home."
"Okay, Rafe. If you like the place, I'll give it a fair chance." Desi said with a smile.
"I really think you'll like it."
A noise from the fireplace drew their attention.
The wood had shifted and one of the pieces had tumbled out onto the hearth.
"I'll get it." Desi said immediately, then picked up the fireplace tongs and expertly picked up the fallen piece of burning wood and placed it back into the grate.
"Thanks." Rafe said with a smile.
"Back home, I used to take care of the fire. Being the youngest of the kids, it was one of the few things I could do." Desi said as he stood and gazed into the fire.
"Youngest of how many?" Rafe asked with interest.
"Eleven." Desi answered distantly.
"That's a big family." Rafe said in an impressed voice.
"Too big." Desi said, as he took the poker from beside the fireplace and began to shift the logs around a little bit. "My mom used to say that her and Pa had ten kids to help on the farm, then after they thought they were all set up, the good lord blessed her with her little Dodger."
"Dodger?" Rafe asked with a smile.
"Yeah. That's what she called me." Desi said distantly, then turned to face Rafe again.
"She always treated me like I was special, I guess because I was the baby and there was five years between me and my next older sister. I think all my brothers and sisters hated me because of it. Even Pa acted like I was the most useless creature to ever walk the earth."
"But your mother always loved you." Rafe said quietly.
"Yeah. But once you get to be a certain age, that isn't enough." Desi said with a pained look at Rafe.
"So when things got so bad that you couldn't bear them anymore, you left?" Rafe asked quietly.
Desi nodded then slowly said, "We had a bad year on the farm. I mean, really bad. It seemed like every time we didn't have enough to eat or someone had to do without something, it ended up being my fault because I was the 'extra mouth' they had to feed and the 'extra body' they had to clothe. One day I just couldn't take it anymore, so I left. I hitchhiked to Columbus and... well, I guess you know the rest."
"I'm sorry you ever had to go through something like that." Rafe said honestly.
"It wasn't all bad... well, at the end it was. But there were some good things, too." Desi said quietly.
"Would you mind if I called you Dodger?" Rafe asked cautiously.
"Why?" Desi asked curiously.
"Because it's the name that was given to you by someone who loved you. Maybe if I call you Dodger, you could see yourself as the special person that your mother saw."
"You really want to do that?" Desi asked in wonder.
Rafe nodded, then quietly said, "Also, every time I call you Desi, I think of Ricky Riccardo."
Desi broke into laughter at the admission, then in a very bad fake accent he called out, "Lucy! I'm home."
Rafe smiled at the poor imitation, then in a quiet but serious voice he said, "Yes, Dodger. You are."
Editor's Notes: Before we go any further, let me say that, as is always the case with MultiMapper's characters, I have totally fallen in love with Desi. Rafe seems to be a very nice person, too. I can hardly wait to see where this is heading. I am certain that it will be a very good story. After all, it was written by MultiMapper. Thank you for writing this, MM. I am ready for more!
Darryl AKA The Radio Rancher