Short Fiction: The Shield
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
In honor of the upcoming Feast of Our Lady Of Guadalupe, and in keeping with the tradition of sharing tales of the otherworldly during this season, I humbly present the following urban fantasy:
Beneath the misty halos of light from the security fixtures, the skinny young man skirted the shadows at the edge of the parking lot. The light beckoned him, even as the darkness kept him back.
The icy chill of the mid-December night was growing uncomfortable. This was Brayden’s first winter in Portland, and he was re-thinking his choice to travel here from L.A.; while the Northwest summer had been pleasant and mild, the sodden autumn and now the pervasive, bone-chilling damp, told him the next few months were going to be miserable. More miserable than usual.
The youth entered the parking lot and approached the entrance of the store. He'd spent the last of his cash yesterday morning and thought he might get lucky if he hung around here and didn't look too menacing. Brayden knew his large, greenish-brown eyes, set in his lean olive face, could be pretty appealing if he tweaked his soulful expression. Over the past six months or so that he'd been on the streets, he had developed a good sense for who would be more receptive than not. Even now, he spied a heavy-set, grandmotherly type, with wispy white hair, exiting the store while pushing a cart containing a handful of items. She had an open, sympathetic face, and didn't seem likely to react with fear or with anger. Or by nastily telling him to get a job.
Casually, he intersected her path, offering a hesitant smile from beneath the bill of his baseball cap as he halted a yard or so away.
“Excuse me ma'am,” he began shyly, but she turned with a slightly annoyed expression.
“I'm sorry, I don't have any cash,” she said quickly. Then she hesitated. “But I've some granola bars and little bottles of chocolate milk. Would you like those?”
“Oh, hey, that would be great.” He stood awkwardly to one side as she pulled these items out of her shopping bags and handed them over, before she moved to unlock her battered old sedan. He wondered if she had bought these treats for herself or for her grandchildren.
In the faint illumination from the tall security lights, she paused and peered up at him. “Need anything else? It's supposed to get really cold tonight. I've got a blanket in my car---want it?”
“Sure, thanks.” Swinging his heavy backpack off his shoulder, he shoved the box of granola bars and a milk bottle in among his other meagre possessions. He took a step closer to her car and gave a nervous laugh. “It is getting pretty cold.”
She pulled a folded blanket from the back seat and placed it in his arms. “Here you go. Stay warm and God bless.”
“Hey, you too.”
As Brayden plunged his fingers into the soft fleece of the blanket, he tried not to notice the way in which the woman quickly loaded her purchases into the car, then heaved herself behind the wheel and locked the doors.
He resettled the pack and reluctantly left the lot, drifting back into the dark. He didn't know if his flimsy tent would even still be where he'd left it earlier that afternoon, huddled against the concrete pier of the nearby freeway overpass. He wasn't even sure he wanted it to still be there, considering how mildewed and battered it had recently become.
Shards of broken glass formed a starry, glittering path along on the road, fallen from the line of vandalized, burnt-out derelict cars parked in the gutter. At the end of the block, he made out the faint shape of his own flimsy shelter, surrounded by his neighbors' make-shift structures built from pallets, scrap lumber and tarps. The sidewalk was thick with trash and filth; rats scurried into the blackberry bushes grasping at the concrete wall to Brayden's left.
Miles across town,Christmas lights from the homes on the hills overlooking the city twinkled brightly. He had spent enough time walking near those neighborhoods to know those windows framed visions of lavishly decorated trees, of people sitting together on comfortable sofas watching TV, or washing dishes in their warm kitchens after full meals, preparing to sleep under dry, sturdy roofs. It was like a dream or a made-up story; he guessed that in reality, they were all probably as lost and unhappy as he was, in their own ways, or in ways he couldn't imagine.
Nearby, beneath the shadow of the overpass, a decrepit RV loomed out of the dark near the far end of the street. A metal fire pit, resting on the pavement just outside the vehicle's side door, cast a few bright flames into the winter blackness. Two dark forms on broken lawn chairs huddled near this spot of light and heat, glassy eyes staring at nothing.
Fred and Dwight had been established here before Brayden had arrived and more or less tolerated his presence. They'd even had a few laughs together when Fred shared some amusing stories about his neighbors in the adjoining tents, and they sometimes all had meals together.
Brayden drew alongside and stopped.“Hey, guys.”
The men answered with inarticulate grunts and mutters; tonight, neither was in a talkative moods. As the youth turned to proceed to his own tent, he thought he detected a sly, resentful look peering out between the tangle of Dwight's matted hair and his curly brown beard.
Brayden could almost feel that glare puncturing the back of his skull as he walked away; he knew Dwight still suspected him of having a hand in the disappearance of the latter's drug stash a couple of weeks previously. It was clear he'd forgotten he'd smoked it all, but Brayden didn't dare argue with him; instead he knew he'd have to be extra watchful around the unpredictable older man.
With a flashlight in one hand, Brayden unzipped his tent and carefully scanned it for rats, happy to find it clear; he was careful to keep food scraps out, and he'd meticulously patched a hole on one wall, so he hadn't yet been troubled by vermin inside.
Taking off his backpack, he tried to get comfortable. His chilled fingers struggled to undo the tightly knotted laces of his hiking boots; his toes were so cold, he just wanted them out of the heavy, wet shoes so he could wrap them in the new blanket. As he tucked the folds of the velvety fleece around his legs, he noticed random patches of blue and gold on the blanket's design, but it was too dark and crowded in the small tent for him to see the pattern clearly. He then pulled the blanket up and over his shoulders, opened the granola bars and drank the milk, before shutting off the flashlight to save the batteries. Swathed in the soft fleece, he was pleased at how comfortable he felt. It reminded him of how he used to snuggle on his mom's lap when he was very little, how her arms would enfold him protectively.
But that protection had been an illusion. When her boyfriend moved in, she couldn't shield her son from the blows or the steady stream of jealous, sneering ridicule. Brayden knew she tried once or twice, but was too scared, too much at a loss to know what to do. Knowing how scared she had been was no excuse in his eyes. She should have done more, she should have done anything. He'd heard a rumor she had finally kicked Carlos out, but was still too resentful to call and learn for certain. If it was true, why didn't she try and find him, to let him know it was safe to come home and start a new life?
Hidden deep in a pouch in his backpack was a new phone. There wasn't much charge left; he might get Fred to let him power it up from the RV's outlet if he asked nicely. But he did not want to; he didn't like touching or using the phone anymore than he had to. It was a gift from the man in the glossy, deep-blue Tesla. The man said his name was Axel, but Brayden wasn't sure if that was true; in any case, he suspected the man was on the city's board of commissioners or else had some connection to a homeless advocacy group. He was short and stocky, in his late fifties, with dark, thinning hair. He had gifted Brayden the phone after their second encounter, urging him to call anytime, telling him he'd be happy to help him get off the streets permanently. Brayden could still taste the Jameson whiskey Axel had pressed on him, to clean out his mouth afterwards, while the man fastened his jeans and shirt back over his doughy form.
Brayden hadn't called Axel, had instead pulled up stakes and carted his gear across town to set up camp here. But maybe he could endure one more meeting in that warm, clean luxurious car. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if he requested an extra shot of whiskey beforehand. Then afterwards, he would ask for the price of a ticket back to L.A.
Settling down into the damp nest he'd made of a few extra clothing items and assorted small blankets, he thought over the pros and cons of this plan. He was concerned that if he approached Axel again, he'd be pulled more deeply into something that really frightened him, that he'd be stuck in a different kind of hopelessness, even if if had the trappings of comfort and security. But the fact that he could still feel the icy hardness of the concrete beneath him was a forceful argument for making that call. As he leaned closer to this decision, he was repeatedly pulled back by the thought of what his mom would feel if she ever learned what he'd become, even as he told himself she wouldn't care---and that he didn't either.
Eventually, sleep helped blur some of his worries, but he did not fall into a very deep, restful slumber. It was a basic survival skill that part of his mind always had to remain alert.
His dreams were as dull and disjointed as ever, eventually ending in a vague impression of traveling through a massive warehouse, where anything he desired was located on shelves too high for him to reach. Struggling to pull a down a particularly intriguing and desirable package, it overbalanced and, with a ripping sound, fell on him.
Startled, he jerked awake into the dimness of the tent. A bulky, indistinct form hovered directly over him; Brayden instantly felt a hard shape thrust deep into his abdomen. Yelling, he thrashed and kicked the figure off himself, but not before receiving another sharp jab.
Desperate, Brayden flung out his arm, flailing in the blackness for his flashlight. His fingers closed over the heavy cylinder and he smashed it against his attacker's head.
Roaring expletives, the man lurched backwards against the side of the tent. Brayden kicked him again, and the man scrambled out through a fresh, ragged hole in the fabric. Dropping something, he lurched along the pavement, his indistinct complaints trailing after him in the frigid night.
Shaking, Brayden stuck his head out and watched; he could now make out that it was Dwight staggering away down the street. There were sleepy grunts from the nearby shelters and one or two people woke up, poking their heads from under tarps and through tent flaps to peer blearily at Brayden.
The door of the RV rattled open and Fred appeared on the top step, demanding, “What th'ell's goin' on out here?”
Brayden climbed through the slashed hole in his tent and picked up the knife Dwight had dropped. Numb with disbelief, he held it a moment as he stuttered, “Dwight jumped me...tried to cut me...,”
“Freakin' loser,” grumbled Fred. “You okay, kid?”
Bewildered, the youth slipped his hand up under his layers of garments and gingerly felt his torso. It was hard to believe, since the knife had been thrust with so much rage, but there were no cuts.
He breathed, “Nothin'...he didn't get through.”
Fred blew out his weather-beaten cheeks and shook his head. “That's some damn tough hoodie you got there.”
“Yeah...,” Puzzled, Brayden turned back to the tent and drew out the new blanket, that one he had been so tightly wrapped in while he slept. Slowly, he walked closer to the streetlamp at the end of the block and carefully examined the fabric.
There wasn't a single hole.
Fascinated, he lifted his arms and extended his hands, stretching the blanket out under the light to study the design. Now he could see it was a larger-than-life portrait of a serene-faced woman, head lowered over her praying hands, her form mantled by a blue-green robe spangled with stars.
He knew her.
From kitschy candles in his grandmother's home, or the wrinkled prayer cards tucked in his mom's purse, this woman had looked at him all his brief life from under those downcast lids. Her expression was passive and enigmatic; he couldn't tell if she was disappointed, hopeful or simply patient.
Dazedly, he bundled the cloth up and draped it over his arms. At that moment, he awareness of the woman faded as he recalled the last look he'd ever seen in his mom's own eyes.
Brayden turned and crawled back in his tent, where he dug the phone from his backpack and punched in a number that he had never forgotten, holding his breath as he waited for his mom's voice to answer.
(c) 2021 S.Kirk Pierzchala
image courtesy Josh Hild via Pexels