“What do you want? I’m not looking for any trouble.” I kept my head down, this was another thing I’d learned to do. Gone was my amiable smile and friendly manner, my warmth and openness, now all I had was fear and apprehension.
“I know you’re not. I’ve seen you outside for the last two days. I’m wondering if you’d like to come inside. Maybe grab a coffee or a soda? We’re serving dinner soon if you’d like some.” Mr Sex-on-legs has reached me now. His arms are away from his body and his hands are open, facing me. He seems to understand my hesitation.
“Yeah, I’m not sure about that, I don’t want to be any trouble.” I hitched my backpack back over my shoulder and turned away. Everything inside me wanted to accept his offer, but everything came at a price. I’d found that out the hard way.
“C’mon, it’s tacos for dinner.” His smile broke my resolve, and I found myself nodding in agreement. My stomach ached at the thought of a decent meal. “That’s great, I’m River. I run the shelter, although it’s much more than that. I could show you around, if you’d like?”
I noticed he hadn’t asked me my name, in fact he hasn’t asked me anything. This was refreshing, I was expecting twenty questions, and most of them will be ones I didn’t want to answer. We walked inside the main entrance and I get to see how huge it is; I knew the building was big but there was so much open space. There are a lot of kids here, some lounged about on enormous sofas or giant bean bags and played on game consoles. Others were at a pool table or dartboards, a few sat at desks working on computers.
“We’ve got about 30 kids here now, not all of them are residents. Some just come here to clear their heads and have some downtown. The garage and workshop are always full and many come on here afterward. We have forty rooms here, some are single occupation others have two or three beds, we have had children from the same family come and stay and they like to stick together.”
“It’s amazing. I’ve been in other shelters and they looked nothing like this.” I clammed up when I realize what I’d said. Fuck, now he knows I’m homeless. It was obvious really, but I didn’t want to come across as needy.
“Hey, no worries here, and no judgment. You can talk, or you can keep to yourself, this is a no-pressure zone here. Come on, let me introduce you to some of the older boys. You look about eighteen or nineteen, maybe a bit more, so I’ll get you to meet Tayte and Trace. They’ve been here for about four months now. They have just finished their GED’s and are hoping to get into college on scholarships.”
My eyes darted to the two guys walking towards us, they were homeless yet could go to college, and before I could censor myself; I blurted out. “I started at college.” My hand clapped across my mouth, but River just smiled.
“Hey guys, come say hi to our new dinner companion.” River put his hand on my shoulder and it comforted me.
“Hey dude, how’s it going?” The first guy said. “I’m Tayte. This ugly bastard is my brother, Trace.”
I smiled because they were identical. “Hi, I’m Joss.” The weight of the last months of pain, homelessness, and some loneliness lifted. I couldn’t remember the last time I smiled. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw River had smiled and stepped back.
“It’s a good place here, Joss. D’you want a look around?” Tayte asked.
“I guess, I’ve got nowhere else to go.” I was still staring around the room. It had been a long time since I felt safe and comfortable, it seemed too good to be true. “How long has this place been here?”
“You’re not from ‘round here?” Trace asked.
“Um, no. I thought my accent would’ve given me away. I’ve been traveling for a while now, I’m kinda trying to pluck up the courage to meet someone. I haven’t got there yet, I may never.” The thought of the photograph I had stuffed in the bottom of my bag after being forced to leave was something I wasn’t even sure if I believed anymore.
“This is as good a place as any to stay, actually it’s probably the best place to be if you have no one and nowhere to go. We’ve been here a year now, thrown out because we’re gay, the people who were supposed to love you no matter what made us leave.” Trace had a roughness to his voice that showed how much it still hurt.
“Yeah, that’s too bad. How do you go about getting a bed here?” The desire to shower and sleep in a warm, safe environment became top of my list of things I wanted to do.
“It’s simple, if you need one, you get one. They’ve never turned anyone away. River is amazing and so dedicated. I think we all have a bit of a crush on him. He’s so damned hot!” Tayte sniggered at the end.
I felt my face heat as I’d been having the same thoughts. We walked through a pair of double doors at the end of the main hall, and I was in a long corridor with doors on either side every fifteen feet or so.
“This is the single room section, there are sixteen rooms down here. Each has its own shower and toilet. They are small but private. The doors have a combination lock that is changed for every new occupant and only the bosses and the person staying have the codes.”
We carried on further down until Trace stopped in front of one door. “This is mine, I’ll let you have a look.”
I turned away while he added his number combination to the keypad, not wanting him to think I was being nosy. He pushed the door open and stepped aside allowing me in first, Tayte flopped down on a very tidy and well-made bed and looks about.
“Trace has OCD and likes everything in its place and all neat and tidy. He’s a freak.” Tayte laughed.
“Fuck off, I’m just not a slob like you.” He pushed his brother’s feet off the bed, but I could see where Tayte was coming from. It looked highly organized and regimented.
“What else happens here? What’s with the bikes and cars.” I’d always loved working on bikes, just generally tinkering about with engines as I grew up. My grandad always let me help him work on his projects.
“You’re kidding?” Tayte looked at me like I’m crazy, and Trace laughed. They seem to do that a lot. I can’t remember when I last really laughed.
“Where have you been for the last two years?” He stopped when he saw the look on my face. “Shit! Have you been on your own for two years?”
“No, but I’m not from ‘round here. What’s that got to do with here?” I’m confused about why they thought I should know.
“Because this place was set up and is owned by Griff Broderick, y’know MotoGP champion?”
Shit! I needed to leave. I couldn’t be here. If they ever found out about me being here, shit! I wanted this to be on my terms, or at least my decision.
“He lives here, he’s married to a totally hot army veteran, a war hero. He comes by whenever he can, which is more now he’s retired.” Trace said excitedly, obviously a fan of them.
Neither of the brothers noticed my reaction as they carried on talking about him. Then a bell rang out and they move off again.
“That’s dinner, c’mon let’s go eat. We can tell you more about him.” Tayte rolled off his brother’s bed. Trace immediately smoothed it out.
They hurried down the hallway back to the main hall, it was a lot busier now. I had to weave around the kids. Ahead I found a way of getting away from here, I spied a restroom near the front entrance.
“Hey, I’m gonna wash up, I’ll find you after.” I tapped my hand on Tayte’s shoulder, and he nodded.
After I’d slipped through the doors, I glanced quickly over my shoulder, checking no one had paid me any attention, then jogged out of the doors.
I moved on quickly, running further down the street and out of sight of the shelter I tore more turnings left and right making me totally lose my way, I wouldn’t be able to find the shelter again tonight, not now the night is closing in. When I looked up at the darkened sky and heavy clouds, I’d never expected here, I shivered, knowing that didn’t bode well for a dry night. I had a feeling that the heavens were going to open, and I’d be soaked through in moments. I slowed down, needing to catch my breath, I slipped into an alley; a sob captured in my chest as I felt my strength and resolve crumble away. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard, find them, she said. They will look after you, she promised. But, with no means to reach them, how was I supposed to do it? There was no guarantee they would believe or accept me. Fuck, I’d settle to with belief even if they turned me away afterward. At least that way I had done as she asked. I’d fulfilled my last obligation, maybe that way I could breathe deeply and clearly and move on, letting me start afresh. My head dropped to my knees as the last of my strength drained from me. I knew the hostel had to be too good to be true.
Of course, I knew he was here, hell; they were both here, but I didn’t know that his husband owned the shelter. Jesus, could they be any more perfect? I think they have children or are adopting.
But for one night I thought I may have been able to have a shower and sleep in a bed, and with food in my stomach too. Fuck! I wrapped my hands over my head and hunkered down further in the alley inside a small doorway, ready to spend the night here. I just hoped to avoid as much of the rain as I could.
I scanned the room for Joss and couldn’t see him anywhere. Tayte and Trace were goofing off on their normal table and there was an empty seat next to Tayte. He may have gone to the bathroom.
I made my way through the tables, talking to a few of the younger ones. We have them as young as thirteen, but they don’t stay here. It’s just respite, and a safe place to do homework or just chill with friends, people the same as them. Just LGBTQ kids that looked for acceptance.
“Hey guys, where’s Joss?” I looked at Tayte who, in turn, looked at his brother, who shrugged.
“I dunno. He said he wanted to wash up and would catch us. I hadn’t realized, sorry River.” Tayte looked embarrassed, that he hadn’t paid the young man further attention.
“Did anything upset him, or did you say anything to spook him?” I pushed my hands through my hair, wondering where the hell he had gone, or why he did a runner
Shit! I’d been monitoring him for the last couple of days as he hung around outside, but I had also had people keeping a look out for vulnerable teens that may have seen him too. I needed to act quickly, he couldn’t have gotten too far away. It was getting dark. He’d need to find somewhere to sleep soon.
My stomach twisted at the thought of him out there another night.
“What did you talk about?” I asked politely, not letting my worry show.
“We just showed him the rooms, and we got talking about the bikes and Griff.” Tayte said, but Trace jumps in.
“He got a bit weird then, after we mentioned he owned the place. He went and got all scared-looking. Have we done something wrong? We didn’t mean to do anything wrong, but he was really keen on this place ‘til then.”
“No, you guys did nothing wrong. I’ll look for him later.” My mind was already running a mile a minute about what and why he left, but there was something more. I’m missing something important and I can’t work out what it is. He looks like any other runaway or castaway, but there’s something about him that seems familiar and I’m fucked if I knew what it was.
After dinner had finished and I’d cleared up with the kids whose turn it was tonight. I laughed at their usual moans and the way they jokingly tried to dodge the worst jobs. They were good kids though and never shirked at the chores, they just liked to sound off about it.
It had been at least a couple of hours since I noticed Joss was missing and knew he could be anywhere by now. This was a big city with plenty of places for kids to hide. Luckily, I knew where many of the hideouts were. I said good night to the night shift, but let them know I may call back in and they had the description and visual of Joss from the CCTV cameras in the reception area. They’d promised to let me know if he came back or found by any of our helpers.
As soon as I stepped out into the night, I immediately turned the collar of my jacket up against the wind and rain. I’d lived here over two years now and could count the number of storms on one hand, but tonight seemed to be a mean and harsh night. I needed to find Joss tonight. This was no night to be outside. Any other kids would’ve been encouraged towards the center by our outreach helpers. This bad weather allowed us to get a lot of the kids off the street, if only for one night.
As I raced down the silent streets, not even the car drivers wanted to be out tonight. I looked in doorways and darkened alleyways and disturb more old timers than I wanted to, but I needed to find him. I didn’t even know why it was so important to me to have him safe. There were still probably another twenty kids out here tonight that needed me scouring behind every dumpster looking for them.
It had been over an hour now, and the rain had soaked me to the skin. The rain lashed viciously against my clothes and straight through to my skin. There was still didn’t have a clue where Joss had disappeared to. It was time to call it a night and head back to the shelter. I needed to write this up so that the other leaders could look out for him.
Just as I turned the corner and trudged down a quiet and rundown street, I heard a sob. This was a sound I’d gotten used to; one I related to. It was the sound of someone at breaking point. The sound was always one that cut me to the bone. It took me back to the last months I had of living on the streets. The nights when I had been left alone to grieve for the life I should’ve had, and to the one I want, that I will never have the chance to achieve. This is the sound of a truly lost and bone-weary man.