It is me and Maria and Susan. Susan’s mother called last night and my mother answered, and then, in the morning, I got in the car and was dropped off at Susan’s house, and then driven into the city.
We are skipping down the street, and it is sunny and bright and crowded, but we don’t mind. Susan’s mother said to meet her in front of the store on the corner, so we are marching there, so she won’t get worried like last time. And Susan grasps my arm tightly so I won’t get lost, because I get lost a lot, and Maria strays behind us, but close enough that we can feel her. And Susan is pointing in windows, shouting I want that, and that, and that, and that, and that. But we all know it is only a wish, because we know Susan’s mother can’t afford that. And so we keep walking. And I see things—clothes, toys— that I want, but I don’t want to say anything because I know that my mother can’t afford them either. And then my stomach knots up and I feel awkward and weird, embarrassed that I can’t have more, though none of us has enough money and Maria is wearing her shoes from last fall again.
And by then our ice cream is gone and we are kids, only nine years old, and free in a big city, alone but not at all scared, and we want to just cheer and dash away, but we are trying to be big kids, to be older, like Susan’s older sister. And Maria taps my shoulder. What are you thinking about? … Oh, nothing. I’m just tired…. You’re not sleeping again?… No.
It’s then that we see him, and we stop where we are. Crouching on the curb, dressed in rips, and hugging the top flap of a cardboard box. He stumbles towards us, his hands cupped, eyes empty, pockets empty. Do you have any money?
Susan shakes her head. No. Sorry.
Please, the man begs. I’ve got a family. Please. Anything.
No. We don’t have anything. I’m sorry.
Please, I have two children. Please, we haven’t eaten in three days. Please. Please.
He’s big but small, crumpled and curled up. I clutch Maria’s arm, and he’s so close, so close he can hear the blood pounding in my ears, my head screaming, telling me to run away. I bet he can hear all that. And my heart is pounding, pounding, pounding, and the man is so broken, so ruined, shattered like a pane of glass. And his gaze shifts to meet mine, and I can see it in his eyes, that despair and grief, and I’m sure he can see fear in mine, so I just look back at my shoes, my ripped and ugly shoes, the ones I cried about, a couple weeks ago, screaming that I wanted new ones. The ones I slammed the bathroom door about, and screamed I hate you at my mother because she wouldn’t take me shopping. And I can hear it in his voice when he asks again, asks if we have anything, anything at all, and his desperation makes me tremble.
Susan shakes her head, I’m really sorry, but we really don’t have anything. When she says this, his shoulders drop, arms fall to his side, and his head drops, drops down, almost touching his chest. And we all want to give him something, but we have nothing, so we keep walking, quickly though, as if being chased, chased by our guilt, perhaps, I think to myself, but I don’t really, and then we are sprinting as fast as we can and a woman shouts, Look where you’re going! —as we knock into her, and her bags take wing, bursting into the air like pigeons let loose from a cage, and then back to Earth as slowly as paper, yet they land so noisily. And I wince, and she cries because we broke a plate or something. Look out! —a man warns as we come racing around, inches from the street, but we don’t stop, we don’t want to think about what we left behind, watching us scuttling away, and knowing why. We don’t want to turn around and, even from a distance, we’ll be able to recognize that man, stretched out on the corner, waiting for someone to have a heart. We don’t want to look behind us and once again behold that cardboard sign, the one that’s asking for help, the one that’s ignored, the way we ignored it. We don’t want to glance back and see cardboard sign, watching us with sad eyes, calling us, pleading, please come back and help, kneeling alone on the curb. But we know he and his sign are there, we can picture it in our heads. That’s why we don’t stop running, until we see Susan’s mother. Holding shopping bags and putting away her wallet. Us, gasping for air.
What’s the hurry? She giggles.
Susan and Maria and me, we all look at each other, and then, for some reason, we laugh. We burst out and we can’t stop. Loud, in your face cachinnation that scares the poor dove sitting on the railing, the kind that used to wake me up in the middle of the night when my parents were watching comedies and would keep me awake long into the night. The day and the image in our heads of the man and his sign slowly crumble around us, and the janitor sweeps it up and throws it away and we can’t remember why we were so upset, why we were rushing so. For some reason, we laugh.
Nisha Klein is currently a sophomore in high school. Her first publication, Sticks and Stones, appeared in the July 2013 issue of Stone Soup. Her short story, We Laughed for Some Reason, was written while Klein was in eighth grade.