Eyes in the Rain
The city looked about as good as it smelled at night, which was to say it looked like shit. On top of that was the chill that bit through my coat whenever the wind picked up and the light rain that had been coming down all day. I had to wonder what good this coat of mine was if it couldn’t keep out even a fraction of the cold air. Then I remembered I had only so much cash on hand—and with that, no real choice in the matter—so I continued my walk down the cold street. To an onlooker, it probably looked like I hadn’t changed the pace of my steps at all.
I passed by one of the few vendors that was actually open at ten in the evening. The person at the window was selling tea to two strangers wrapped in scarves and jackets. From where I stood, it smelled almost like jasmine tea, but I doubted it. That kind of luxury belonged to the fancier restaurants, which in my experience were run by either people too blinded by money or gangsters who needed a front for their strongholds. At best, that vendor was selling actual tea; at worst, hot water with some flavor in it. Whatever the case was, the couple walked away with their tea in hand, looking as dispirited as I felt. Nothing new in this city.
At that point, I decided the quality of the tea didn’t matter; I needed something to warm me up. I tucked the rolled up blanket I had bought earlier under the crux of my left arm, which I could support by slipping my hand into my jacket pocket. The gloves I had were wearing thin, and the extra layer of warmth provided by the pocket didn’t do much to stave off the cold. With that, I crossed the street and approached the tea vendor.
The vendor was a young lady, maybe around twenty years old or so, and looked like she had just reached over to shut the window. When she saw me coming, though, she stopped and peered out.
“Think you can serve one more customer for tonight?” I asked.
A light shone behind her but not in her eyes, and her scraggy hair fell upon her shoulders like discarded curtains. Must’ve been working all day, I figured. Despite that and the sigh she let out, she nodded and smiled. “Yeah, I can. We’re almost out, though. What do you want?”
“Whatever costs less than a dollar.” I reached into my pocket to grab my wallet. Being careful not to drop the blanket, I sifted through the money I had and confirmed again that I didn’t have much more than a dollar, and it was all in coins. I would need to step up my game at the restaurant tomorrow if I didn’t want to be this strapped for cash again.
As I did my sifting, I heard the vendor shuffle around prepping the tea and pouring it into a disposable cup. By the time I looked up to hand her the money, the cup was on the stand and the heat from the tea was swirling upwards. She took the money and bowed without a word, and I responded in kind before I picked up the cup. I’d gone barely two steps when I heard the window shut behind me.
Guess she wants today to be over, too, I thought.
The path I took sent me between the towering buildings of the city and away from the majority of the lights that dotted the clearing. To put this in perspective, the tea shop sat at the border between the wide half of the street and the half flanked on either side by tall buildings. Once I stepped into the latter half, the brightness was overtaken by shadows, leaving only a few small lamps to guide my way.
I hadn’t gone far or even taken a sip from my tea when I spied something out of the corner of my eye. Between two buildings was a small alleyway, and in there I noticed a small figure sitting in front of a tent. It wasn’t much of a tent, actually—just an empty trash bag draped between two metal bins whose lids were the only things keeping the bag up. That hadn’t been there this morning.
Neither had the candle nor the kid next to it.
The figure turned out to be a small boy who’d curled himself into a ball. Behind him was another boy, smaller than the first, who was occupying most of the space under the makeshift tent and sleeping under a green jacket. They looked similar, what with their both sporting black hair, so I guessed they were related. They might not have been, but I went along with the assumption. Both kids looked like rag dolls that had been dropped in the dirt. My pace slowed down as I walked by, and then the boy in front of the tent whipped his head to his left and caught my gaze.
I noticed at that point that he wore a basic set of clothes and a dull red coat he had thrown over his head. My train of thought called him Red as a result. What caused me to stop in my tracks completely, though, was the look he possessed in his brown eyes: a mix of guarded terror and suspicion, the kind that wondered if they were about to face a threat. At the same time, he shifted in place quietly—so as not to disturb the boy behind him, I guessed—and kept his eyes locked on me. I saw his left hand reach for the other boy, but he didn’t shake him awake. Being as young as he was, he probably had no idea how to regard me. Couldn’t blame him.
I wasn’t sure what happened next.
I just walked over to Red even as he continued to give me that stare. Goodness gracious, how old was he? He barely looked ten, if he was even that old, and yet he appeared to be as dead inside as the tea vendor. Something about that made the look in his eyes all the more striking. Disturbing. Sad.
Before he could do anything to wake the sleeping boy, I gestured for Red to calm down and knelt in front of him. Without even thinking about it, I handed him the cup of tea I’d bought. At the sight of this, some of that guarded terror seemed to fade with the rain, but he didn’t reach out for the cup.
“Here,” I whispered, edging the cup a bit closer.
Red drew back, but with one glance at the boy behind him, he stopped himself. His eyes shifted from me to the cup, back and forth, before he finally reached out and took the tea into his small, shaking hands. He glanced at me once more, the suspicion in his eyes still present. I gave him a nod and a silent go ahead.
After another moment or two, his shoulders relaxed somewhat and that look was replaced by the kind of weariness an adult would have after working from sun up to sundown. As he took his first sip of the tea, I unrolled the blanket I had bought and gently placed it over his head and shoulders. The blanket was thick and large enough to not only provide Red decent cover from the rain, but also to fall onto the other boy. Red glanced behind him and must’ve seen just that because I thought I saw him let out a silent breath of relief. He spread the blanket over the other boy and then took another sip.
Curiosity struck me at that point and I leaned closer to him, causing him to grow tense again and give me that look. I went ahead anyway, pointed to the boy behind him, and asked my question in as soft of a voice as I could manage. “Who is he?”
Red shuddered slightly at a passing breeze before the fatigue returned like last time. He swallowed, and when he spoke, his voice was coarse and barely audible. “My brother… my little brother.”
He shook his head and didn’t look up.
I drew back, nodding. After that, I didn’t dare to walk away. Instead, I waited for Red to finish the tea. We were quiet during that time, and I studied the scene before me: Red huddled under the blanket I’d given him, trying to stay awake despite the hour; his brother sleeping behind him; the two bins flanking them on either side with a trash bag strung between them; the rain falling everywhere. Aside from the candle in the holder, the only other light in the vicinity was a nearby lamp on the wall opposite the two boys, but it was a few feet away.
I found myself wondering at that moment if I had anything else to spare. Then I remembered that I could barely pay for the small house I had and the food I needed to eat just to make it through a given day. The coins I had left wouldn’t be enough to buy the boys anything essential, and I needed the clothes on my back as much as they needed theirs. At the very least, though, I could stay with them through the night. I whispered just that to Red, but he didn’t answer. The rain stopped shortly thereafter, so I sat myself down against the wall with the light.
I must’ve fallen asleep somewhere along the line because the next thing I knew, it was morning. In front of me, the makeshift tent remained but was empty; both boys, the candle holder, and even the disposable tea cup were gone. The blanket I’d given Red was gone, too, or so I thought at first. When I moved to stand, a felt something fall off from in front of me—a something that turned out to be the blanket. Whether it had been Red, his brother, or both of them, the somewhat drier side of the blanket had been on me until I had moved to stand. I picked it up and took one more look at the place where the boys used to be.
Seeing the empty space made me realize that I had no means of tracking them down to make sure they were all right. Sighing, I folded the blanket and started on my way home. I had no idea what to think about the situation of the two kids. The only focus I had was a nagging, empty feeling as the image of them I’d memorized continued to appear and reappear in my mind’s eye.
I could’ve done more, I thought. I could’ve given them more; I could’ve taken them home; I could’ve—
But I didn’t.
And I wasn’t sure if there really had been anything else I could’ve done. Had I been wrong to hold back just because I had to look out for myself, too? Had I actually held back? Was there more I could do if I saw them again? Would I see them again?
Whatever the case was, I would always remember a rainy night when I saw a small boy who possessed a stare that looked far too old to be on a face so young.