Travis Baker shook his head, ‘What the hell was he doing out here?’ Panhandling. Begging. It was something that he generally avoided. It was degrading. Humiliating.
The cardboard sign with the American flag drawn on it that he had tucked beneath his arm was not even his own — one of the old-timers. G.I. Joe, as everyone had nicknamed the black man in his sixties who had done three tours of duty in Vietnam, had pleaded with him to do it…just this once. It was Christmas Eve and all kinds of ‘good people’ were looking for someone to help. Especially a Vet with an American flag sign.
It had taken Joe all morning to convince him. The old man did not know that Trav had no intention of accepting charity from those ‘good people.’ He might be screwed in the head, but he was not that pathetic. Not yet. And he never would be. He would take another option before it came to that.
No, he had survived for three years on the streets by foraging and living off the land. He would not have lowered himself to this, except for Joe. The man needed a new sleeping bag. Trav had even seen the one he wanted to get the old guy at a second-hand store for only ten dollars.
Ten dollars? His throat got tight at the thought. What was ten fucking dollars? He used to throw that away on lunch at Milly’s Diner. A twelve-pack cost about that unless it was on sale. Ten dollars would barely move the needle on the gas tank of his truck. But now? It might as well have been a million dollars.
Not that he minded usually. Unlike most of the guys out here, he had steadfastly avoided self-medicating his pain with alcohol and drugs. Everything else, he could usually garner from trash cans. It was shocking all the stuff that people threw away. Shocking and shameful.
He could easily feed himself and usually a couple of others from the dumpsters outside a fancy restaurant he knew. They ate for free what cost other people close to a hundred dollars. Why would anyone spend that kind of money on a meal? The shit was not even that good. Trav usually only went there if he could not garner a cold pizza or two from the take-out place a couple of blocks away.
Clothes and blankets, of course, were a bit harder to come by in central Atlanta. So, once a week or so, he made a habit of taking a stroll out to one of the suburbs before the recycling truck did its rounds.
The coat he wore now had been one of his recent finds. The leather was torn underneath the arm, but that was no big deal. He had borrowed a needle and thread from another guy, and within ten minutes, it was serviceable. Not that his sewing would win any quilting contests, but it got the job done. Out here, he was as glad for skills like that, which he had learned in scouts and from his Mama, as he was for the hunting and recon ones his Daddy and the Marines had taught him.
Things were tough on the streets. But he supposed no tougher than life anywhere else. He might have to put in a few hours every night scourging for food and whatever else he or his couple of buddies needed, but that was a far sight more honest work than all those suits he passed in the concrete jungle on his way back to their encampment beneath the overpass.
Of course, being hassled by the police was no pleasure. But when that happened, they just packed up their few possessions and headed out. With so many miles of freeway, it was easy to find a new place to squat and set up his tent. He would have actually preferred more of a Rambo existence deep in the woods, and he did sometimes go that route when the noises, smells, and crowds of the city got too much – like now.
This time, he just could not. He felt responsible for Joe, and his other friend Steve, a former Ranger, who, like him, had seen way too much shit over there just to go back to the life they had led before. Especially after what happened to Darren.
Breathe. Travis had to force himself to pull air into his lungs when he thought about the man. It was still too painful. Another friend lost. Another of his fucking failures. There were so many. Too many.
If he kept thinking like this, he would let Old Joe down, too. He would turn back and lose his one chance to get that sleeping bag for his friend for Christmas. He figured that with some luck, there was an outside shot that he might ‘earn’ just enough in the next couple of hours to do the one thing he wanted most this year…save one friend, at least.
Trav had just spotted the ideal place, any empty doorway near a big office building. People would soon be coming and going for their final lunch hour before the holiday, many of them even leaving work early to be with family. He shook his head, as he hoped like hell this was worth it. That the sleeping bag was still available and that ten dollars was not too much to ask for a Christmas miracle.
He was just about to cross the street and was in a hurry before someone else took such prime ‘begging’ real estate when he saw the woman. She could not even be thirty, but her face was scrunched in a deep frown that aged her as she struggled to pull a wheelchair from the back of an SUV that must have been at least a decade old.
Trav thought, at first, that she was talking to herself until he noticed a slight movement in the back seat. Then he saw the little angel. She was tiny, probably no more than five. Her dark skin glistened in the dull afternoon sunshine as she smiled and nodded her head at whatever the woman had said. Her braids bobbed, and glittery pink ribbons glinted in the light.
He shook his head and turned in the other direction as he caught sight of one of the teenage girls from their encampment slipping into the spot he had coveted. Oh well, she would probably have more luck than someone like him. People did not feel all that charitable towards grown men, whom they believed should ‘just get a job.’ Not that it was that easy. Not in this economy.
Not even for Vets like him. Especially for them. The country he loved and had defended, that had taken so many of his friends’ lives, seemed quick to forget all of that.
He would find somewhere else later. Maybe forget the whole fucking thing. He approached the woman, who was still struggling at the back of her car. “Here, let me help you with that,” he offered with as close to a smile as he could muster. Those muscles in his face were tight and hurt a bit as he forced them into the unfamiliar movement.
Keisha’s first reaction was to draw back from the disheveled stranger. Especially a man of his size. He had to be over six feet tall. The worn leather bomber jacket that had seen much better days was stretched tight across broad shoulders, too tight as if the coat had been made for someone else. Obviously, it had been, as it dawned on her, this man was one of the homeless that they had come seeking this day.
Where she might have avoided someone like him any other time, she forced a smile. Even if the man was not what they sought, perhaps he could point them in the right direction. The sooner they found someone and got back to their apartment, the happier she would be.
Keisha had spent the last couple of days vacillating between being thankful that Breanne’s wish had been so inexpensive and counting the few dollars that she could carry over into the New Year as a result and trying to convince the child to abandon her errand of seasonal folly. But her beloved angel was immovable. She wanted a homeless Marine for Christmas, as silly as that sounded.
She forced a smile and turned towards the man, “Thank you. I would appreciate that.” She moved out of the way and allowed him to lift her daughter’s chair from the back of her vehicle with an ease that was beyond her.
She busied herself, assembling it, and almost missed as he started to move on. “Wait!” Her voice sounded a bit too shrill. She inhaled a calming breath and forced another smile as she began again. “I know this is going to sound completely insane, but perhaps you could help us with an errand we are on today.”
The man stared at her skeptically as she forced the rest of the story out. “We are trying to find a homeless man. A Veteran. A Marine is preferable.” She rambled incoherently.
He shook his head that was covered in a dusty black knit cap so that she could not tell the color of his hair, “What’s his name?” He took a step backward as if to turn and run if she did not give the right answer.
She shook her head and giggled nervously, “No, you misunderstood.” Keisha tried to organize her thoughts but realized how completely insane this must sound to him. “The one thing my daughter wants for Christmas this year is to help out a homeless Veteran…in honor of her father.”
“I know that may sound completely insane, but she’s a little kid who has been through a hell of a lot. And if I can give her what she wants this year and it helps someone else out too, then what’s the harm?” She pushed the words past the lump in her throat and fought back the tears.
The man looked across the partition at her daughter, who had turned in her seat and was beaming one of those smiles that put everyone at ease. “Yes, ma’am. I think that’s a right fine idea too, little lady.” His smile to her child was more genuine though his eyes were still sad, but kind. “And I just might have the man for you.”
Keisha returned his smile and pushed the chair to the door as she opened it. “Did you hear that, Angel? The nice man says he might know someone for you.”
Bree practically jumped into her arms as she propelled her tiny body forward with all her limited strength. “I’m so excited, Mommy.” She lifted the child into her wheelchair and secured the belt about her waist before turning back to the man, “So lead on, I guess.”