Street Life

by Graeme

graemeaussie@hotmail.com

WARNING: This story contains references to suicide and underage male prostitution. If these topics disturb you, please don’t read further.

Descent

Craig sagged against a telephone pole and watched the car disappear into the night. His professional half smile faded to a look of weariness as he took stock of his situation.

With a misty rain falling, he didn’t expect many more customers. There would still be a few, so he had to stay out, but it wasn’t going to be a good night. He hoped he wouldn’t catch a cold. Barely making ends meet, if he missed more than a couple of nights because of sickness, he would be in trouble.

“Would you like a cup of soup, Jimmy?”

Startled out of his musings, Craig turned and grinned at the old lady who stood behind him. She was greyhaired and wrinkled, and the twinkle in her eyes complemented the smile on her lips as she offered a thermos to Craig.

“Thanks, Mrs. K. That would be very nice. The night’s warm, but this mist is sure dampening the spirits.” Craig took the thermos and unscrewed the lid. Sniffing appreciatively, he asked, “What’ve you made tonight?”

“Pumpkin soup. You can’t go wrong with pumpkin soup. Lots of goodness to help keep you healthy, Jimmy,” Mrs. Kowalski cheerfully replied.

As Craig poured himself a drink, Petria Kowalski wondered again what had driven the young man she knew only as Jimmy into a life of prostitution. He looked like he was under eighteen, but several of the streetwalkers she thought of as “her boys” tried to make themselves look as young as possible. In the ten years since her husband had passed away, the elderly Polish widow had taken to helping those young men in little ways. Somehow, by the 1980s, the quiet St. Kilda street where she had lived since arriving in Australia in 1938 had become the destination for Melbourne men looking to pick up boys for sex. As they were mostly discreet, the police tended to turn a blind eye to the practice, just as they ignored the more flamboyant ladies of the night on other streets of St. Kilda.

While Mrs. K watched him drink the soup, Craig thought of all the little things she had done for him and for the other boys who worked the street. He recalled his initial encounter with the diminutive old lady. On his first night working the streets, he had been extremely nervous, so nervous that he had left his jacket in the car of his very first customer. He had been standing in the street, shivering from the cold that was seeping into his bones, when Mrs. K. had suddenly appeared out of the dark and handed him a coat. After exhorting him to take more care next time, she told him to return it when he had a new jacket of his own.

Realising how much he owed her, Craig made a decision. “Mrs. K? My real name is Craig, not Jimmy. Craig Prendegast. I just wanted you to know,” he said quietly.

Reaching up and patting him on the cheek, she said, “Thank you, Craig. You’ve always been a polite boy. Now, finish your soup. You need to keep up your strength.”

While he slowly sipped the soup, savouring each mouthful for both the taste and the warmth, Craig noticed an old Ford Falcon approaching. Due to the survival conditioning he had gained during eighteen months of working the street, he took note of the number plate. Recognising it as the car that had picked up Andy an hour earlier, he guessed that it was returning to drop the boy off.

Andy was new. As with most of the boys, Craig didn’t know why Andy was there, but the innocence that he presented to the world clearly demonstrated how non-streetwise he was. Craig and Tony, one of the other more experienced boys, had taken Andy under their wings and tried to educate him about life on the streets. Sometimes, that felt strange to Craig. Not quite seventeen, he was the youngest of the boys who worked the area, but in experience he was one of the oldest. He sensed something odd in teaching someone who was probably at least two years older than he was.

Craig halted his musing with a start. Something wasn’t quite right. Peering intently at the car that had stopped just up the road, he suddenly realised what had triggered his gut reaction. He saw only one silhouette, that of the driver, who was reaching across to the passenger door.

Dropping his cup of soup, Craig started to run as the car door opened. Just as he got to the vehicle, a body rolled out and landed on the wet nature strip. Torn between trying to get to the driver and checking on the person at his feet, the decision was taken away from him as the car sped off with a squeal of tyres, the door still open.

Craig knelt down and gently rolled the body over. A groan answered one question, and the sight of Andy’s face, albeit covered in blood, answered another.

“Oh, my god! What did that man do to him?” Mrs Kowalski exclaimed as she approached.

Craig didn’t say anything as he slowly checked out the boy. Andy continued to moan, but seemed barely conscious. He certainly didn’t try to speak as the rain slowly spread the blood, turning everything a soft pink. His shirt was ripped half off and his jeans were undone, though they were still pulled up around his hips. After Craig had finished his examination, he rocked back on his heels and looked up.

“Lots of cuts and bruises, some of them pretty bad. There may be a broken bone or two as well, but I’m not sure. I sure don’t like the way he flinched when I touched his ribs.”

He frowned down at Andy.

“I think we should get him to the hospital. Can you stay with him while I try to get Tony? Between the two of us, we should be able to walk him to The Alfred for treatment.”

“And how long is that going to take you, young man? It’s at least a thirty-minute walk, and that’s without trying to carry someone. You get Tony, and then we’ll all take my car to the hospital.”

Grateful for the offer, Craig ran down the street to where Tony usually worked. Feeling a sense of relief, he spotted the muscular twenty-year-old casually posing in a tight, wet T-shirt, under a streetlight. It was an unconscious act, as there were no potential clients around, but after a couple of years of trading on his looks, Tony showed off his physique at all times.

Surprised, Tony straightened up as Craig slid to a stop in front of him. Slipping slightly on the wet grass, Craig grabbed Tony’s arm to stop himself from falling.

“Andy’s been hurt,” Craig gasped. “Whoever did it shoved him out of the car and took off. He needs to get to the hospital.”

Tony anxiously looked up the street from where Craig had run. “Who’s with him? You didn’t leave him by himself, did you?”

“Mrs. K is there. She’s offered to drive him to The Alfred if we can get him in her car.”

“Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s go!”

The two jogged back. Tony’s black hair, broad shoulders and overdeveloped arms contrasted with Craig’s light brown mop and slender, graceful body. While neither would admit it, long months of working the streets had formed a bond of trust, if not friendship, between them.

Still moaning and moving slightly, Andy lay in a slowly widening pool of blood and water. Mrs. Kowalski was trying to keep the rain off him, but the coat she was using was too small to be effective.

She looked up. “Good! You stay here and I’ll get my car,” she said, straightening up. With spryness that belied her age, she scampered off to her home.

Craig and Tony looked at each other. Their shared lack of hope was almost palpable.

“Jimmy, do you know what happened?” Tony asked.

“Not in any detail. He was picked up about an hour ago in an old model red Falcon. It’s the first time I’ve seen that car around. When it came back a few minutes ago, the driver rolled Andy out of the passenger door and went speeding off. It doesn’t look like S&M or bondage gone wrong, so I’m guessing that Andy refused to do something and the guy got violent,” Craig replied while staring down at the still-moaning Andy.

With a quick glance at Tony, he added, “If I give you the details of the car, including the number plate, can you help me pass it on to the rest of the guys? We don’t want anyone else ending up like this.”

Tony nodded and repeated the details back to Craig to make sure he had them memorised. He looked down the street and snarled. “Jesus, I hate guys like that. They take advantage of us enough. Can’t they just accept that we’re not here to cater to their every fantasy?” The anger in his voice was reflected by the rippling muscles of his arms and shoulders as he repetitively clenched and relaxed his fists.

Reaching down to wipe some of the rain off Andy’s face, Craig asked, “Do you think we should tell the police about this one? He’s been beaten up pretty bad.”

“The cops? What makes you think they’ll be any different with this one than any of the others?” Tony derisively spat.

“I know, but I can always hope.” Craig sighed. Memories of the various police officers he’d spoken to since he started working the street rose up in his mind. Most were arrogant and the rest were largely disgusted by the mere existence of the male streetwalkers. There was one exception, however.

“Constable Inkermann seemed sympathetic, last time I spoke to him. Do you think we could ask him to look into it?”

Tony shook his head. “After all this time, you still persist in looking for the good in people, Jimmy. Inkermann likes guys. That’s why he’s sympathetic. He’s one of my regulars. He still won’t risk his job by doing anything to help, though. All he does is turn a blind eye to what we do, and encourages the other cops to do the same. He tells them that by providing a service, we stop our clients from preying on innocent boys.”

He laughed cynically. “As if guys like Andy aren’t innocent! He should never have ended up on the streets in the first place. I don’t know what happened, but he should be at home with his family. He’s too good to be here.”

“We all are, Tony. We all are,” Craig said, softly.

After a quizzical look at Craig, Tony nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. None of us would be here if we had a choice.”

Silence fell between them as each reflected on the circumstances that had lead to his life on the streets.

With a burning clarity that he still hoped would fade with time, Craig recalled his father throwing him out of the house. While many others used that term figuratively, in his case it was literal.

“You’re no son of mine! I never want to see you around here again!” his father had raged, after he had grabbed his fifteen-year-old son and thrown him through the lounge room window.

Terrified, Craig had picked himself up out of the broken glass and fled, bleeding from multiple small cuts. He had thought that his parents would always love him, that they could accept him as he was. But after they found a gay magazine under his bed, his belief in his parents took a mighty blow. He tried to return a couple of days later, but his father disowned him and slammed the door in his face. He couldn’t forget the sight of his mother turning her back on him just before the door closed.

He drifted closer to the centre of Melbourne as he tried to find a job that would allow him to keep a roof over his head at night, but no one was willing to employ a fifteen-year-old high school dropout. Scavenging for leftovers in the rubbish bins outside of restaurants and sleeping under bushes in a park, he was sinking into a deep despair when an old guy offered to pay him twenty dollars for a blowjob.

Jumping at the chance to earn any money at all, Craig agreed. He didn’t enjoy it, but he wasn’t completely disgusted by the idea, and the money helped put some decent food into his stomach. It was that man — he never learnt his name — who told Craig about the section of St. Kilda where strangers would pay young men for sex.

Two nights later, Craig’s hunger drove him to working the streets. In the meantime, he had walked the area, but always furtively, trying to avoid catching anyone’s eye. He saw the young guys posing along the street, and he realised that the clothes he was wearing would not be suitable if he wanted to do the same. At fifteen, he thought he’d be the youngest there, but several of the others looked barely eighteen.

He thought long and hard over those two days. He didn’t have a job, and it didn’t look like he’d be finding one. He was constantly hungry and had been sick more than once from the scraps he’d been eating. The nights had been warm, but he knew he wouldn’t survive a winter sleeping in the parks. He needed a place to stay. The thought of becoming a prostitute sickened him, but he couldn’t bring himself to start stealing, the only other way he could think of to make money. His parents had brought him up to be conscientious, and the idea of theft made him too uncomfortable.

Despite that, he knew he would have to steal some clothes if he was going to take up a career of prostitution. After debating madly with himself, he chose to target a St. Vincent de Paul charity shop. Tears of shame streaming from his eyes, he ran out of the store with a pair of jeans, a silky shirt, and a jacket. He promised himself that he would make a donation in recompense as soon as he could afford it.

Feeling guilty, Craig started his career that night. Eighteen months later, only Tony remained of the streetwalkers from that first night. Most of the others had just drifted away. Three were found dead from drug overdoses, reinforcing Craig’s aversion to that aspect of life on the streets.

A fellow named Bobby almost drove Craig away from the streets. One of the older boys, probably mid-twenties, Bobby had an extremely effeminate personality. Craig suspected that a lot of it was an act for the clientele, but he could never prove it. Certainly, Bobby’s long, flowing hair and his passion for jewellery stated that masculinity was not a big part of his nature.

A carload of drunken yobbos, out for what they thought of as a fun bit of poofter bashing, ended Bobby’s career. He lived, but the last time Craig saw him at the hospital, Bobby tearfully informed him that he’d be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It was only the realisation that he had to make money to pay the rent that ended Craig’s resulting four-night break from the streets. Hunger didn’t do it — it was over a week before his appetite returned.

The beeping of a car horn brought Craig out of the painful memories. Sighing thankfully, he looked up to see Mrs. Kowalski pulling up in an old, almost classic, Holden sedan.

“How about we lay him down on the back seat? I don’t think it would be a good idea to try to sit him up,” suggested Tony, as his eyes flicked between Andy at his feet and the car beside him.

“Sounds good to me,” replied Craig. “I’ll slide in first and help ease him along.”

“There’s a couple of blankets on the back seat, boys. Use them to wrap him up first and it should be easier to get him in,” Mrs. Kowalski said, looking over from the driver’s seat.

Between them, the two worked to get Andy onto the back seat of the old car. Craig almost dropped him at one point, when Andy screamed in agony at his shoulder being bumped against the back of the seat, but they finished loading him without further incident.

“Look, the car’s a bit small for all of us. Why don’t you go with him, Jimmy? I don’t think you’re up to working anymore tonight, anyway,” Tony suggested gently.

Smiling gratefully, Craig climbed into the front seat of the car.

“Now, let me do most of the talking at the hospital,” Mrs. Kowalski said as she drove off slowly.

“Sure, Mrs. K.”

“Do you know his real name, Jimmy?”

“Sorry, no,” replied Craig. Smiling, he added, “And remember, my name’s Craig.”

Mrs. Kowalski flicked a stare of disdain at Craig, before returning her attention to her careful driving.

“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man,” she retorted. “You don’t have to act the tough street punk with me. I know you’ve been around for a while, but you’re still young. You’re what, only eighteen? Nineteen?”

Craig was silent for a few seconds before he responded. “I turn seventeen tomorrow,” he answered softly, all trace of jocularity gone.

“Holy mother of God!” exclaimed Mrs. Kowalski. The elderly widow was stunned into silence. She knew he was young, but she hadn’t realised just how young. As she continued the slow, careful drive to The Alfred, she was overcome by the misfortune of the boy beside her. Even without knowing his background, she felt a pain seep through her at the thought of anyone so young being so lost that he had to resort to prostitution. She knew she would feel anger later, but for that moment it was all she could do to hold herself together. Despite her best efforts, a small trail of tears fell from her eyes.

As she pulled into the emergency entrance, her pain slowly turned to admiration for Craig. Despite his tender age and the life he had been living for the last year and more, he showed a strength of character and compassion that was exceptional. She didn’t know what she could do, but she resolved to try to find a way out for him. He needed help, but he wasn’t going to find it working the streets.

“You wait here, Craig, and I’ll try to find someone to come and help you get Andy out,” she said, as she parked the car.

“Thanks for driving him, Mrs. K, I really appreciate it.”

She smiled gently at him. “No need to thank me, Craig. It was something that just needed doing.”

Walking into the hospital, she looked around for someone to accost. Not immediately seeing anyone suitable, she walked up to a desk where a nurse was busy with paperwork.

“Excuse me, but I have a badly injured boy in my car. I need some help moving him.”

Mrs. Kowalski was soon escorted back to her car by two orderlies. Craig was waiting by the car, with the rear doors already open. When one of the orderlies moved the blanket covering the barely conscious Andy, he started in surprise.

“Get a trolley, Conrad. I don’t think we should disturb him more than we have to, not until a doctor’s seen him,” he said, looking back at the other orderly.

Turning to Craig and Mrs. Kowalski, he explained, “We’ll get him inside as quick as we can, but it’s better to do it a bit slower rather than risk aggravating any injuries. Are there any specifics we should know about?”

Craig looked at Mrs. K. When she nodded for him to answer, he turned back to the orderly.

“His ribs seem to be very tender, and he screamed when we bumped his shoulder putting him in the car. Apart from that, it seems to be mainly cuts and bruises.”

“Okay, then. We’ll try to get him out without moving his upper body too much.”

The other orderly returned after a couple of minutes, wheeling a trolley. After sliding a board under Andy, the orderlies transferred him to the mobile bed. As they took him into the hospital, Mrs. Kowalski turned to Craig.

“You stay with him. I’ll move the car and I’ll be back soon. If they ask, just tell them you’re his cousin and that I’ll do the paperwork when I get back.”

Craig nodded. He tried to express his thanks, but nothing would come out. He was just numb with worry about how Andy would fare. He’d only known the guy for a couple of weeks, but the glow of innocence he had always exuded made him precious in Craig’s eyes. Finding that aura dimmed by pain and injury was a blow to Craig’s self-confidence. Visions of the tear-streaked Bobby in a wheelchair kept intruding into his mind.

Turning to follow the orderlies into the hospital, Craig panicked when he saw that they had already disappeared inside. Jogging up through the doors, he saw them moving Andy past the nurses’ station to an unoccupied cubicle. Following quickly, he arrived just as they were drawing the curtain to partially isolate their patient. The orderly who had been addressed as Conrad gave Craig a contemplative stare before waving him inside.

Craig collapsed into the bedside chair and watched the orderlies transfer Andy from the trolley. The battered boy gave one low moan before dropping back into silence.

“The nurse will be here shortly. If anything happens before then, just hit that red button on the wall,” Conrad told Craig, before the two orderlies left him alone with Andy.

Before the nurse showed up, Mrs. Kowalski pulled the curtain aside and hustled into the cubicle. After a critical look around, she stood in front of Craig.

“Let me answer the questions, Craig,” she stated firmly. “If anyone asks, remember, you’re his cousin.”

Craig looked up, dazed. His mind had been lost between memories of Bobby and despair at the way Andy was being forced to live this life. As her words slowly seeped through, he nodded his head. “Okay, Mrs. K,” he responded numbly.

It was some time before a nurse came in. Craig had no sense of how long they had been waiting, but Mrs. Kowalski was beginning to fume at the length of the delay.

“Now, what do we have here?” the nurse asked as she strode in.

“A very sick and hurt boy,” Mrs. Kowalski stated forcefully. “One who is not getting any better by bleeding all over your hospital beds.”

“I’m sorry, but we are doing all we can. There have been several road accidents due to the wet conditions, and we’re being stretched,” the nurse explained as she began examining Andy.

Silence reigned during the examination, interrupted only by low moaning from the injured boy.

Craig listened, barely comprehending, as the nurse collected the details required for the hospital records. Mrs. Kowalski stated that Andy was her nephew and that she was his next of kin. When the nurse looked towards Craig, a question clearly in her gaze, Mrs. Kowalski replied blandly that Craig was another of her nephews.

After almost an hour, a doctor looked in on Andy and things progressed faster from that point. After barely a cursory examination, Andy was admitted as an inpatient. X-rays were ordered and his injuries were washed and bandaged.

With no recollection of how he had ended up there, Craig found himself standing outside, facing the front passenger door of Mrs. Kowalski’s car.

“Well, get in, Craig!” the exasperated widow demanded.

Mechanically, he got into the car as his mind tried to sort out what was happening. He vaguely heard a question being asked.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, as he struggled to concentrate on his surroundings. “What did you say?”

“I asked you if you wanted to go back, or could I take you home?” Mrs. Kowalski said, trying hard not to take her frustration out on the boy sitting beside her. He wasn’t the cause of the incident that night, but she needed a target to yell at — it just shouldn’t be him.

“Home,” Craig muttered, staring blankly through the slightly murky windscreen. “I can’t work anymore tonight.”

The car sat motionless for several long seconds. Craig turned to his companion to ask what was wrong, then realised she didn’t know where “home” was. With a voice barely audible, he navigated until Mrs. Kowalski steered her car into the quiet side street where he lived.

“I’ll get out here. Thanks for the lift, Mrs. K.” He raised a hand as a pitiful thank you for her assistance.

“If you need any help, you know you can ask me,” Mrs. Kowalski said as she leant over so she could see Craig clearly. Her expression told Craig it wasn’t an idle promise.

“I know. I’m fine for now. Thanks again.” Craig closed the door and then waited while the old Holden pulled away. His shoulders slumped once the car was out of sight. He trudged down to number twenty-four, the place he shared with three other guys.

The rusty gate screeched loudly in Craig’s ears as he pushed it open. None of the guys were interested in doing much maintenance work around the property they were renting, and the small front yard showed the neglect. Craig ignored the overgrown garden as he fumbled in his pocket for the house key. Once he found it, he opened the door and stepped into the hallway.

His footsteps echoed off the high ceilings in the old home as he headed towards the kitchen. He frowned as he reached the room at the end of the hall. A light was on, but he expected his housemates to be asleep. Unlike Craig, they had day jobs.

“Craig! You’re home early.” Keith Dayton peered at Craig for a moment before continuing. “Is something wrong?”

Craig looked at Keith and then at Brett Petersen, who was seated opposite Keith. Craig didn’t notice Brett casually sliding a piece of paper off the table, down and out of sight.

“I’m not feeling too good. I was just going to have a drink of water and go to bed.”

Brett and Keith exchanged glances before Keith spoke. “It’s nothing serious, I hope?”

Craig shook his head. “I’ll be fine tomorrow, I’m sure. I just need some rest.”

“Okay, mate. We won’t keep you then,” Brett said. “We’re just chatting. For some reason, neither one of us is particularly tired.”

Craig nodded, not really paying attention, and got himself a glass of water. With an absentminded “night” he headed to his room.

“Do you think he heard us?” Keith asked Brett as soon as he was sure Craig was out of earshot.

“Nah. If he had, he would’ve reacted somehow, or asked some questions.” Brett retrieved the piece of paper and put it back on the table. “Back to organising his surprise birthday party.” Brett shook his head. “I still can’t believe he’s going to turn twenty. He looks a lot younger.”

“Yeah, I know, but I’ve got a cousin like that. He’s twenty-two and still has to show his ID at nightclubs because he looks barely eighteen. I’m glad Phil happened to check the rental documents the other week and spotted Craig’s date of birth. Craig hasn’t let out a peep about it.”

Brett chuckled. “Unlike the way Phil was dropping hints a month in advance.”

The two returned to their self-appointed task, which included leaving a list of things for Phil to do in the morning.

Despair

Craig staggered out of bed around eight-thirty the next morning. After a quick shower to wake up properly, he headed for the kitchen to make himself some breakfast — a meal he usually missed. He found Brett reading the newspaper, a mug of coffee sitting next to him and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.

“Craig! You’re never up this early,” Brett said, hastily stubbing out his cigarette.

Craig gave him a wry smile. “True. And we’re not supposed to smoke in the house. I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

Brett laughed. “Deal!”

While Craig filled the kettle, he spoke over his shoulder. “What are you doing here, anyway? I though you started work at eight.”

Brett shrugged, though Craig couldn’t see that. “I’m doing my bit for good old Aussie traditions. I’m taking a sickie.”

Craig threw him a quizzical look. “Any particular reason?”

Brett didn’t meet Craig’s eye, but concentrated instead on the newspaper. “I’ve got a few chores I need to do, but it’s mainly that I felt like a day off. I haven’t used any sick leave all year, so they owe it to me.”

“Sounds like a good idea.” Craig opened the jar of instant coffee and added a teaspoon to his mug. After a moment, he added a second spoonful.

“Why don’t you do the same? The way you looked last night, I think you could do with a day off,” Brett said.

Craig thought about it while he waited for the water to boil. He needed money, but he knew he wasn’t going to earn very much — he would have trouble projecting the right impression to pick up new clients. He could rely on a couple of regulars showing up, but that would be about all.

“What’s the forecast for today?” Craig asked.

Brett looked it up. “Drizzle with late showers developing. A top of twenty-three.”

Craig made a tentative decision. “I might take tonight off, then. I’ll see how I’m feeling later.”

Brett smiled. He tried to keep it in, but he couldn’t help himself. He knew that Craig wouldn’t realise the real reason for it — that Craig’s not working would mean they’d be able to extend the surprise party into the evening. The original intention was to have it end around eight, when Craig normally headed out, but if he stayed home they’d be able to go out to a bar or nightclub.

“You know, even though I’ve lived here for ten months, I still don’t know what you do for a living. I know you work in some sort of latenight shop, selling stuff, but what exactly do you sell?” Brett asked.

Craig hesitated before answering. “Personal goods, mainly. The pay’s not great, but it’s a job.” He didn’t want the conversation to continue along that line, so he made an attempt to change the topic. “You and Phil are both construction workers. Did you meet at work?”

“I think that’s the first personal question I’ve ever heard you ask. You keep pretty much to yourself, don’t you?” Brett paused for Craig to respond, but then continued. “No, we met here. Phil got this place and then put out ads for extra people to help pay the rent. He advertised in the union newsletter, so it’s not that big a coincidence that we’re both in the trade.”

An awkward silence followed as neither was sure what to say. Craig thought back to all the weekends when he had sat at the edge while the group discussed sports, women and, occasionally, politics. He rarely contributed, but he was still a part of the group.

The kettle boiled and Craig made his coffee. After the first sip hit his stomach, he realised he wasn’t up to eating anything. He planned on visiting Andy in the hospital, and that thought took away his appetite.

“I’ll catch up with you later. I’ve got a few things I have to do, myself.” Craig took his mug to his room. He closed the door and put the coffee on the bedside table. An intense weariness fell on him and he rested his head on the wardrobe door. He didn’t feel like doing much, but he had promised himself he would visit Andy. It was Craig’s seventeenth birthday, a day that he should’ve been happy about, but it felt more like a funeral. His childhood had died the day his father threw him out of the house, and he was still mourning.

Twenty minutes later he was out on the street and walking towards the hospital. The light mist from the night before was still falling. His jacket kept out most of the moisture, but he could feel water dripping down the back of his neck, and his jeans were saturated by the time he reached The Alfred.

He couldn’t remember which room Andy had been in the night before, but he suspected he may have been moved, so he approached the reception desk. He paused as the sternfaced middle-aged woman’s visage was momentarily replaced by that of his mother. He shook his head to clear the illusion.

“Excuse me, I’m looking for a friend of mine. He was brought in last night.”

The woman scowled. “It’s not visiting hours. You’ll have to come back later.”

Craig remembered something that Mrs. Kowalski had said. “But I’m family. He’s my cousin.”

The scowl softened, but Craig still felt intimidated. The woman looked down at a printout in front of her. “Name?”

“Andy Kowalski.”

She flipped the paper forward and ran her finger down the list, then shook her head. “There’s no Kowalski here. He must’ve been sent home.”

“That’s impossible! He wasn’t even conscious, and they said he probably had cracked ribs. They were planning on keeping him for several days!”

“He’s not on the list.” Her tone was flat, as if the names in front of her were the sum of all that was important.

“Can you check, please? He has to be here!”

She peered at him for a long moment and then picked up the phone. “I’ll ring Emergency and see what they’ve done with him. What time did he come in?”

“Around eleven last night.” Craig stood still, barely breathing, as he watched her dial a number.

“Hi, Pete. This is Gladys at the front desk. I’m trying to track down a patient who came in last night, sometime around eleven. The name’s Andy Kowalski. He’s not on the list, but some twerp is insisting that he should still be here.”

She paused and looked down her nose at Craig. “They’re checking now. Lucky for you they’re not busy.”

Her attention returned to the phone. She rested it in the crook of her neck while she flipped through the computer paper. “Yeah, got it. Thanks. Pete.”

After hanging up, she stared suspiciously at Craig. “He’s still here, but not under that name. He gave a different one when he came to. Why didn’t you give me his real name?”

Craig wasn’t sure whether he should bluster or plead. He decided to try to talk his way out of it. “Our aunt admitted him under her name. She said it was easier that way, since his parents are out of town.”

Gladys sniffed once. “Andrew Barton,” she said, emphasising the last name, “is up on the third floor. Ask the ward nurses if it’s okay to see him.”

“Thank you!” Craig raced down the corridor towards the lifts. After a glance at the number of people waiting, he decided to take the stairs.

Upon reaching the desired level, Craig paused to look around. He spotted a young nurse behind a desk to his right. “Excuse me, but I’m looking for Andrew Barton.”

She looked up, startled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. What was it you wanted?”

“I’m wondering if I could see Andrew Barton. He was brought in last night.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You do know it’s not visiting hours, don’t you? Only family are allowed in at the moment.”

“He’s my cousin. I brought him in last night and I want to see how he’s doing.”

She smiled. “In that case, I’ve got good news. He’ll heal up just fine, with enough bed rest.” She leant forward over the desk and pointed down the corridor. “Five doors that way, on the left.”

Craig followed the directions, but then hesitated. He wasn’t really certain why he was there, apart from wanting to make sure that Andy was okay. The nurse had already told him the answer to that question, so he found himself debating if he should go into the room. He straightened and opened the door. He wanted to see Andy with his own eyes.

It was a mistake. As soon as he saw Andy lying in bed with bandages on his head, bruises under his eyes, and a heavy dressing on his chest, Craig had a flashback to the image of Bobby.

“Jimmy!” Andy looked surprised, and there appeared more than a tinge of happiness at seeing a familiar face.

“G’day, Andy,” Craig said as he entered and sat in the visitor’s chair. He was glad that the other bed in the room was empty. It would have been difficult to talk with a stranger listening.

“How did you know I was here?”

“Mrs. K and I brought you in last night. Do you remember any of it?”

Andy shook his head, then winced as the movement disturbed his injuries. “Not a lot. Some guy picked me up, saying he wanted to blow me. Once we were parked he wanted me to do some weird stuff, and when I hesitated he grabbed me by the shirt and yanked me towards him. My shirt started to rip, I tried to get away, and that’s the last I know.”

“Thanks, Andy. Tony said he’d help me warn the others about the creep.” Craig wanted to ask more questions, but he wasn’t sure how to do it.

“You said you and Mrs. Kowalski brought me here. Is that right?”

“Yep. Tony and I got you into her car, and then she and I brought you here. She told them you were her nephew.”

Andy smiled, and though the sight warmed Craig, it made him want to find the guy who had put Andy in hospital, so he could rip his balls off.

“That explains why they called me Andy Kowalski. I couldn’t work that out. They asked if I’d been here before, and I said yes, but I had to tell them my real surname before they found the records.”

Craig frowned as he realised something. “Andy, does that mean you’ve being using your real first name on the street? You know Tony and I both told you not to do that!”

Andy cringed. “Sorry, but I couldn’t think of another name to use. It’s only my first name, after all.”

Craig leant forward to emphasise his words. “When you go back, you’re going to have to think of a new name. I’ll pick one for you, if you like, but don’t use your real name!

Andy dropped his gaze to the bedspread in front of him. “I don’t want to go back.”

“What?”

Andy looked up. His eyes were moist. “I don’t want to go back on the street. I can’t do it, Jimmy, I just can’t. I gave it a try, but now I’m not up to it.” Tears started to trickle down his cheeks.

Craig moved over and sat on the side of the bed. He cautiously put his arm around Andy’s shoulders and let the boy cry against his chest. “Okay, Andy. It’s okay.” He waited until Andy had calmed down before continuing. “But you told me you needed the money. What are you going to do instead?”

Andy gulped once and gave Craig a hesitant smile. “My wallet’s in the drawer in the side table. Can you get it out for me, please?”

Craig retrieved the wallet and tried to give it to Andy. He was perplexed when Andy shook his head and wouldn’t take it.

“There’s not much in it, but there should be enough. Can you do me a favour, Jimmy? Please?”

“I’ll try.”

“My parents’ phone number is in there. Can you ring them, please, and let them know where I am? Tell them I’m sorry and I want to go home.”

Craig was glad that he wanted off the streets, but he thought maybe Andy was being too optimistic. He knew that he had suddenly left home after coming out to his parents. Going back might not be an option.

Craig glanced at the phone on the bedside table. “Why don’t you ring them yourself?”

“They live up near the South Australia border. The hospital won’t let me make a long distance call. You’ll have to find a public phone to call them from.”

“Surely they’d let you ring your parents!”

“No. They told me they had a next of kin already recorded who was local, and wouldn’t do it because I mightn’t have enough cash to cover the call.”

Craig checked the wallet’s contents. He found the phone number and a handful of coins, which made him realise that either Andy hadn’t gotten money up front from the guy, or the creep had cleaned out the wallet.

“Okay, I’ll do it.” Craig resolved to put in some of his own money if it got Andy off the streets. He stood up. “You stay and rest, and don’t let them kick you out before you’re well and truly healthy.”

“Thanks, Jimmy. Thanks a million. You’re a really good friend.”

Andy’s smile almost had Craig telling him his real name, but his street-wise caution held him back. If it didn’t work out, Andy could be back on the streets again, and Craig didn’t trust Andy’s ability to keep his name a secret.

After a quick goodbye, Craig left the room. He strolled back to the stairs and took them slowly, while thinking. He paused at the second floor landing, ignoring the others on the stairs, and checked his own wallet. He didn’t know how much the call would cost, but he thought he had enough for a decent talk with Andy’s parents.

He reached the ground floor of the hospital and looked around for a pay phone. He saw one near the front entrance, but the intermittent flow of people going in and out made him decide to find a phone booth outside. He wanted a modicum of privacy when he rang.

He turned left out of the building and headed towards the pub on the corner. The mist had evolved into rain, and Craig jogged along the footpath in an attempt to avoid getting too wet. He glanced around and then turned into St. Kilda Road and headed towards the junction.

He found what he was looking for near the next intersection. The booth had some graffiti inside but a quick check for a dial tone showed the phone was still working. The rain created a background of gentle rumbling that was noticeable, but wouldn’t make it difficult to listen. Craig took off his wet jacket while he collected his thoughts, and then dropped a few coins into the slot. He dialled the number from Andy’s wallet.

Craig heard the sound of two coins dropping in the machine as a woman answered. “Hello?

“Mrs. Barton?”

“Yes. Who’s this?”

“I’m a friend of Andy’s, and –” Craig started, but was quickly interrupted.

“Andy? Where is he? Put him on, I want to speak to him!”

“Andy’s not here, he’s in hospital. He asked — ”

Mrs. Barton broke in again. “Hospital? What’s happened? Is he okay? Which hospital? Please tell me he’s okay!”

A quirky smile played across Craig’s lips. He felt that Andy’s life was changing for the better. “He’s okay, but he’ll be in The Alfred Hospital for a few days. He’s been injured and he wanted me to tell…” Craig stopped speaking as he heard Andy’s mum yelling to someone else.

“George! Start packing! We’ve got to go to Melbourne. Andy’s been hurt and he’s in The Alfred!”

Mrs. Barton turned her attention back to the phone. “Thank you… I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name. Please tell Andy that we love him and we’ll be there to see him soon. We’re really sorry about what happened before. We over-reacted and we’ve been waiting for him to call ever since.”

“I’m Jimmy,” Craig said, deciding that it would cause confusion to give a different name to the one Andy knew. “Andy said he’s sorry, too, and he wants to go home.”

“Thank you, Jimmy. I’m sorry, but I need to go and pack a few things. We’ll be heading to Melbourne within the hour — I want to be with my baby tonight.”

Craig had a warm glow when he finished the call. The problems that Andy had experienced with his parents had only been temporary, and the naïve young man would be going back where he belonged, in the middle of a loving family. He wouldn’t become another Bobby.

Craig collected the unused coins and stared at them for several seconds. It was his birthday, and he felt that the situation with Andy might be a sign that things could turn around. He wanted out of the mindless and futureless life he was living, so he put in a couple of coins and dialled a number he hadn’t tried for well over a year.

His stomach felt queasy and he gnawed on his lower lip as he waited for someone to answer his call.

“Prendegast residence. Phil speaking.”

Craig gulped once and tried to speak. His voice was barely audible and he knew it wouldn’t be heard.

“Hello? Anyone there?” Phil Prendegast sounded irritated.

“Dad, it’s Craig.”

There was silence for a moment, and then Craig’s father’s voice exploded down the line.

“Don’t you ever call me that! You’re no son of mine — I disowned you the day we found that filth you’d been hiding. You’re the lowest scum of the Earth. Filthy, rotten scum. If I had known you’d try and ring, I would’ve changed the phone number. Now fuck off and leave us alone! If you try to contact us again, I’m calling the cops. Your sort ought to be locked away and not allowed near decent people!”

Craig’s mouth was still hanging open as he heard the tone of a disconnected line. His hopes had been raised by Andy’s parents, and then smashed to pieces by his father’s tirade. Barely conscious of what he was doing, he let the phone slip out of his grasp. He left it hanging, swinging slowly, as he picked up his jacket, turned, and pushed open the glass door.

Craig was dazed as he stepped out of the phone booth and into the rain. He glanced along the road, not really taking in what was there, but instead seeing a life that was going nowhere. A life that would, sooner or later, end up like Bobby’s.

Walking on automatic and quickly becoming soaked, Craig headed to the nearby intersection. Waiting to cross the road and head home, he wondered what he’d do when he got there. He wondered if there was any point to his life.

The sound of a racing engine drew his attention to a bus, windscreen wipers whipping madly, that was accelerating in an attempt to beat the change of lights. Almost without realising he was doing so, Craig made a decision.

He whispered bitterly to himself as he stepped into the path of the oncoming vehicle.

“Happy Birthday, Craig.”

Damnation

Craig wasn’t sure if he wanted the nurse to return with more painkillers or if he felt that the agony was a just retribution for his failed attempt to end his life. He had been told that he was in surgery until the early hours of the morning and that he should regain the ability to walk after a sufficient amount of physiotherapy.

Mandy, the redheaded nurse who greeted him cheerfully when he woke up, didn’t blink when Craig didn’t seem pleased by her report. She just said it was time for more medication, and then left the room.

Craig was aware when the nurse returned and fiddled with the IV drip that was hooked on the stand next to the bed, but he didn’t respond. His mind kept returning to the vision of Bobby and his wheelchair-bound existence. Andy had been lucky, but Craig couldn’t see any escape for himself.

He didn’t know how long he had been lying there, as the drugs seemed to distort time as well as reduce the pain, but he became aware that someone was speaking his name. He focused his eyes on a large, swarthy gentleman in a white coat standing at the foot of the bed, a stethoscope slung casually around his neck. He was holding a medical chart.

“Craig Prendegast?”

“Yeah. How do you know my name, and who are you?”

“I’m Doctor Lennard. You can call me Joe, if you like.” The doctor frowned. “Your name’s on the chart. Why shouldn’t I know it?”

Craig rolled his head so that he could stare out the window. Rain was coming down heavily, accompanied by the occasional flash of lightning. The randomness of the illumination helped to distract him. He was tired, both physically and mentally, and didn’t feel like explaining that there wouldn’t have been any ID on him when he was hit.

“You’re lucky that Doctor Wilson was around to do the surgery. He’s one of the best in the state. You’ll be experiencing pain for some time, but there’s an excellent chance you’ll regain most of your mobility.” Joe chuckled. “Hopefully, you’ll remember to look the next time you try to cross a road.”

Craig turned his head and stared at the doctor. He wanted to glare, but the drugs wouldn’t let him focus on that level. He simply made eye contact and held it until the doctor started to become uncomfortable.

“I did look before I stepped out. I just wish the bus had been going faster, so I wouldn’t be here.” Craig watched the doctor blanch. “So don’t bother coming back. Making me better’s just a waste of time.”

The doctor left and Craig was alone, though only for minutes. Mandy, the nurse, returned carrying a tray. She frowned at Craig.

“You’re in no condition to try anything, but I thought I’d let you know that I’ve been told to sedate you. I think you’re just going through some mixed up times, but you scared Doctor Lennard. You can expect some more visitors, the next time you wake up.”

She placed the tray on the side table and prepared an injection. Craig watched, fascinated about how indifferent he felt, as Mandy pulled a clear liquid from a bottle into the syringe. To his surprise, she then injected it into the IV tube. He had expected her to put it into his arm. His eyes closed as the drug took effect.

When he next opened his eyes, he found he wasn’t alone. An elderly lady was sitting in the chair next to the bed, knitting a jumper.

“Mrs. K!” Craig’s voice came out as a croak, but it was enough to attract the woman’s attention.

“Craig! You’ve given this poor old lady a terrible shock. You shouldn’t do that sort of thing.” She laid down her knitting and poured some water from a jug into a plastic cup. “They told me you’d have a dry throat when you woke up, so here, drink this before you try speaking.”

Craig took the cup and tried to smile his appreciation. After a couple of sips, he gave it back. “Thanks, Mrs. K.”

She smiled as she took the cup and put it on the bedside table. She then narrowed her eyes and jabbed a finger in Craig’s direction. “You and I have to talk, young man. I didn’t appreciate getting a call yesterday to say you’d been hurt. I especially didn’t like being told by the nurse earlier today that it might not have been an accident.”

Craig felt small under her stern gaze. He felt that he should defend himself, but he knew he couldn’t. He seized on something she’d said, and attempted to change the topic. “Why did they ring you?”

Petria Kowalski’s visage softened slightly. “You are lucky that one of the orderlies on duty recognised you from the other night. They had my details from when Andy was brought in, so they rang to let me know where you were.”

“Do you know how he is?” Craig asked, trying to keep the conversation away from himself.

She nodded. “He’s doing fine. I saw him and his parents a couple of hours ago. He’s going to be okay.” She frowned at Craig. “His mother told me you rang them to let them know where Andy was. After doing that, you tried to kill yourself. Why?”

Craig realised he should have known she would get back to that topic. He wasn’t sure he could verbalize it, but he felt he owed her an explanation. He started speaking while staring at the bed cover.

“Because he’s going home and I can’t. I rang my dad after I spoke to Andy’s mum. He hasn’t changed — I’m still the scum of the Earth.” Craig looked up. “I’ve got nowhere to go. How long is it going to be before I’m too old to do what I do, or until I end up like Andy was that night, or worse, like Bobby? When am I going to just lie down and die, having done nothing all my life?”

Mrs. Kowalski stared impassively for several seconds. She then smiled, reached over, and patted Craig’s hand. “You’ve got more going for you than you believe. But I don’t think now is the time to talk about it. You rest and heal. Just remember that you’re always welcome in my home.”

Sensing that Craig wasn’t up to much talking, Mrs. Kowalski filled him in on what little had changed on the street. She told him that Tony said to say hello, as did a couple of the other boys. While she was chatting, an attendant entered with a tray of food.

“What’s this?” Mrs. Kowalski asked, sniffing disdainfully.

“Consommé, puréed vegetables, and ice cream. He’s on a soft food diet, or at least that’s what my instructions say.”

She waited until the man had left before turning to Craig and winking. “I think I’d better bring a thermos of soup the next time I come in. You need lots of goodness to get big and strong again.” Picking up her knitting, she added, “It’s time for me to go so you can eat in peace. I’ll be back later.”

“Thanks, Mrs. K. Thanks for everything.”

Mrs. Kowalski paused at the door and looked back. “I only wish there was more I could do, Craig. People are still falling through the cracks, and it’s a crying shame.”

She was gone before Craig could respond, though he wasn’t sure what he would have said if she had stayed. He cautiously took a sip of the consommé and quickly agreed that a thermos of soup from Petria Kowalski would have been a lot better.

An hour later, though it seemed longer to Craig, there was a soft knock at the door. He glanced wearily over and saw an unfamiliar woman with short, curly brown hair.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not sure if I’ve got the right room. I’m looking for someone called Jimmy.”

Craig made a quick guess. “Mrs. Barton?”

“Yes.” She smiled and then called back into the corridor. “I’ve found him!” She entered the room. “Mrs. Kowalski told us you were up here — it’s simply terrible that you had an accident on the same day you rang us about Andy.”

Andy followed Mrs. Barton into the room. He was in a wheelchair that was pushed by a middle-aged balding gentleman who wore black-rimmed glasses.

“Jimmy!” Andy said when he spotted Craig. His grin stretched across his face.

“G’day, Andy.” Craig put on a smile, but his heart wasn’t in it.

“You’re not looking too well,” Andy said.

Craig gave a snort of laughter and then winced as the movement hurt his ribs. “Yeah, I suppose so.”

“You look tired, so we won’t stay long, but we wanted to thank you in person,” Mrs. Barton said. She flicked a smile at Andy. “Our son tells us that you’ve been looking out for him, and that you brought him in when he got hurt. We can’t express how much we appreciate what you’ve done.”

Mr. Barton nodded. “That’s right. We had been dreading a phone call saying he’d been found dead in a ditch somewhere, so having him back feels a bit like a miracle.”

“That’s okay. Andy’s a good kid. I’m happy that he’s able to go back with you.” Craig tried to keep his twinge of jealousy from showing.

A frown flicked across Mr. Barton’s face, while Mrs. Barton fussed with her purse.

“Did Andy…” Mr. Barton glanced down at the back of his son’s head. “Did he say why he left home?”

“I told him, Dad. Jimmy’s a cool guy. He didn’t care,” Andy said. “As I told you — he watched out for me and tried to make sure I didn’t get into trouble.”

“Well, yes, I see.” Mr. Barton was flustered, but quickly pulled himself together. “Andy told us that he’s been working with you. What line of work do you do, Jimmy?”

Craig caught Andy’s panicked expression and realised he hadn’t told his parents everything.

“Personal goods. Doesn’t pay well, but it’s a job.”

“Well, we probably should ring your boss to let him know that Andy won’t be back, and that you’re off sick, too, in case he hasn’t heard. Do you have the phone number?”

Andy’s wide-eyed look of horror had Craig smiling for real. “That’s okay, Mr. Barton. He knows. He said to wish Andy all the best.”

Andy mouthed a thank you.

“Is Andy owed any money?” Mrs. Barton asked. “We can pick it up on the way home.”

“No, Mum. I’d just been paid before I was robbed, so we don’t have to do that.”

Craig let his head sink deeper into the pillow and let his eyelids start to droop. It wasn’t all an act, but he didn’t want to tell Andy’s parents more lies.

“I’m so sorry. We’ve overstayed,” Mrs. Barton said as she put a piece of paper on the bedside table. “It’s time we left. Thank you again, Jimmy. This is our phone number — feel free to ring if you ever need any help. After what you’ve done for us, we’re eternally in your debt.”

“That’s okay, Mrs. Barton. It was my pleasure,” Craig said. He let his eyes close, while he listened to the Barton family leave his room.

“Now, son, what sort of personal goods was it that you and Jimmy dealt with? Your mum and I want to know everything that you’ve been doing since you left home,” Mr. Barton said as he wheeled Andy out the door.

Craig smiled for a moment and then sighed. He knew it wouldn’t take Andy long to spill the beans; he was too open to keep it a secret for long. Craig wondered what the Bartons would think of their son after they learnt the truth.

Craig woke up when a nurse stopped in to check on him. He winced as she took his blood pressure.

“Sorry, Craig, but you’re going to be sore for a while. If you need more painkillers, just let me know. The doctor has left an order for you to have whatever you need,” Carol Trimble said while she slowly released the pressure from the cuff around Craig’s left bicep.

Craig thought about it, but didn’t say anything. His injuries were painful, but he was taking that as his penance. The pain wasn’t so bad that he couldn’t think or couldn’t rest.

“You had some more visitors while you were sleeping, but I had to tell them to come back tomorrow. One of them was a good-looking guy, too. Do you know if he’s single?”

“Who?” Craig whispered.

“His name was Phil. The other two were Brett and Keith, I think.” She winked. “I really wasn’t paying that much attention; Phil’s a hunk and I’m not sure I caught the other guys’ names properly.”

Craig was surprised. He hadn’t expected his housemates to know where he was, or to visit. “Phil’s single.”

“That’s fantastic!” Nurse Trimble pursed her lips as she took the cuff off Craig’s arm. “Now I just need to swap shifts so I’ll be on duty tomorrow afternoon.”

She continued chatting while checking his bandages. “They brought you a birthday cake, too. They said they’d organised a surprise party for you, but you never showed up. When they got worried, they rang around and found you’d been admitted. You’ve got some loyal friends there. One of them — I think it was Brett — was going to stay until you woke up, but I had to tell him he wasn’t allowed to do that.” A soft smile appeared on her face as she paused and gazed off into the distance. “Now, if it had been Phil who’d said that, I might have let him stay, though I would’ve had to come in here a lot more often to keep an eye on him.” She winked at Craig.

“Being in hospital on your birthday must really suck, but at least you’re alive. From what I heard, it was touch and go a couple of times. You’re really lucky.”

“Yeah. Lucky,” Craig said, thinking she probably wouldn’t recognise the sarcasm.

Carol wasn’t as dippy as her nattering implied. She had learnt that some patients relaxed if there was a constant chatter, and that others preferred silence. She had picked Craig as being the former type and had been keeping a careful eye on him the whole time. The note in his record about a possible suicide attempt was emphasised at each nursing shift handover. It was why she had made a point of mentioning the visit by his housemates.

As soon as she had completed the observations, she returned to the nursing station, rang an internal number, and arranged for one of the staff psychologists to see Craig. She thought it was unlikely that Craig would be drifting back to sleep during the next couple of hours, and that it would be a good time for an initial psychological evaluation.

Marc Stenski didn’t appear to be one of the medical staff, and that was the way he liked it. Patients relaxed more easily when they took in his loose-fitting polo shirt and jeans. He smiled as he entered Craig’s room and loped over to the chair next to the bed.

“Hello, Craig. I’m Marc. I was wondering if you were up to a bit of a chat.”

Craig closed his eyes and gave a resigned sigh. He had been half expecting the visit. “You’re the shrink?”

“Sort of. I prefer to reserve that term for psychiatrists. I’m a psychologist, which is different. I’m not here to make a medical judgement or declare you crazy, if that’s what you’re expecting. I’m here to help you with any problems that life’s thrown your way.”

“What sort of problems do you think I’ve got?”

Marc settled himself for a long chat. He sensed that either Craig would dump most things on him pretty quickly, or that it would take several sessions to extract them from him.

“You made some comments to Doctor Lennard when you woke up after surgery. Would you like to tell me what you meant by them?”

Craig grunted. Marc waited, and when there was no other response, he mentally scheduled more visits. Despite his young age, Craig had too much experience in holding things in, so it would take some time to get through his defences. Marc mused to himself that he would have time. Craig wasn’t going anywhere for a few weeks.

* * *

“Surprise!”

Craig looked towards the doorway and saw three grinning faces. Brett and Keith walked into the room, followed by Phil, who was carrying a small box.

“What are you guys doing here?”

Brett raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t the nurse tell you that we were here yesterday? You were asleep, so we came back today. Not the way we had intended to spend Saturday afternoon…”

“Yeah, there’s a game on and I’m missing it!” Phil’s grin revealed that he wasn’t irritated. “Shows you how much you mean to us.”

“But these things happen.” Brett jumped into the visitor's chair just as Keith grabbed for it. “We brought you a cake. We know we’re a little late, but you didn’t show up for your birthday party.”

Keith scowled at Brett and then smiled at Craig. “I’ll be back in a sec. I’ll see if I can scrounge up some plates and a knife.”

Phil put the box on the table, knocking over one of the two get-well cards that were there. “This isn’t the original cake. It wouldn’t be edible if we’d kept it, so we bought another one.” He picked up the card and glanced inside at the various names. “Who’s this from?”

Craig smiled. “It’s from some of the guys I work with.” He had been touched when Tony had shown up and put it next to the card from Mrs. Kowalski. He hadn’t expected to see anyone from the street, as he knew that avoiding emotional connections was a necessary part of that life. Tony hadn’t promised to drop in again — something Craig understood and accepted.

Brett reached into his jacket pocket and brought out another card. “There’s something really wrong about putting a birthday card next to get-well cards, but I guess we can’t help it.” He grinned as he arranged the three cards so that the birthday card was in front.

“The nurse yesterday told us you probably couldn’t eat a standard cake yet, so today we brought an ice cream cake,” Phil said.

Craig couldn’t help feeling happier at the burst of energy his housemates brought into the room. He had been feeling depressed after a chat with Marc earlier in the day, and the guys were the perfect antidote for that.

“Bummer about getting hurt on your birthday, mate,” Phil said. “But at least you’re still alive. The nurse said it could’ve gone the other way.”

Craig swallowed. He didn’t want to continue that conversation. “Did you guys really plan a surprise party for me?”

“Yep!” Phil said.

“I wouldn’t call it a party — there weren’t going to be any girls.” Brett winked. “But when you said you’d probably take a sickie, I started thinking we could kick on to a pub somewhere.”

Keith returned while Brett was speaking. He was carrying five plates and a collection of teaspoons, and he was followed by the nurse named Carol. “Brett was mightily pissed off when that didn’t happen. Anyone would think it was his party that was cancelled.”

“I wasn’t pissed off. I was worried that Craig hadn’t shown up!”

Craig smiled as he let the guys bicker playfully while Phil doled out pieces of ice cream cake. Carol said she had to be there, since it wasn’t hospital food, and then winked at Craig while tilting her head in Phil’s direction. Craig would have chuckled but his ribs reminded him that it wasn’t a good idea.

Twenty minutes later, the nurse was back at her station and the guys were still chatting away. Keith was telling them about a girl who worked in his office.

“…and so I asked her what she was doing on Saturday night,” Keith said.

Before he could continue, a middle-aged woman stormed into the room. “YOU!”

“Mrs. Barton!” Craig said, surprised at Andy’s mother’s apparent anger.

“I want you to keep away from my son. We’ve just found out the disgusting things you’ve been making him do. We don’t want you anywhere near him, ever again. Don’t you dare ring, either. You’re not welcome. The sooner we can get him out of here, the better.”

Craig gulped and glanced at his housemates. Keith and Phil appeared stunned, but Brett was scowling as he rose to his feet.

“Who are you and what are you talking about? What’s Craig done?” Brett asked as he crossed his arms.

Mrs. Barton looked him up and down. “Are you one of his poofter whore friends? If so, you stay away from my son, too. My son’s not going to grow up to be a prostitute like your friend here.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Brett shot Craig a puzzled glance before returning his attention to Mrs. Barton. “We’re his housemates — we’re here for his birthday.”

“Jimmy, or Craig, or whatever his real name is, tried to turn my son into a streetwalker. I won’t have it!” She glared at Craig and pointed a gnarled, bony finger at him. “You just stay away from Andy. If you try to see him or speak to him, I’ll call the police.”

Before anyone could react, she marched out of the room. There was silence for several seconds.

“Craig? What was that all about?” Keith asked.

Craig thought about lying, but he knew that the seeds had been laid. Sooner or later, his friends would find out the truth.

“Her son, Andy, left home after he told his parents he’s gay. He came here to Melbourne, but couldn’t find a job. He ended up on the streets. To try to make some money, he turned to prostitution.” Craig closed his eyes while he continued his monotone speech. “He’s got no street sense at all, so I helped him out and showed him the ropes. It didn’t work. He was bashed a few days ago, and ended up here in hospital. I called his parents to come and get him — he shouldn’t have been on the streets in the first place.”

“You helped him,” Brett echoed. “You showed him the ropes. Does that mean…?”

Craig nodded. “It was the only way I could get the money to live on.” He opened his eyes and looked at the three guys gazing down at him. Phil didn’t seem to realise his jaw was hanging open. The other two appeared to be just as stunned. “I didn’t have a choice! It was do it or starve!”

“You’re a poof?” Phil asked, almost pleading for Craig to deny it.

Craig’s response was soft, but clearly audible. “Yes.”

Phil turned and walked out. Keith stared at Craig for a moment, his expression unreadable, before following Phil. Brett looked at Keith’s retreating back until it was out of sight, and then turned to Craig. He was confused.

“Craig, I… well, you see…” Brett shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He backed up until he reached the door. “I’ll…” He left without completing the sentence.

Carol raced into the room. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw Craig. “What’s going on? Your friends look like someone has just died.”

“I think someone did,” Craig whispered, half to himself.

“Who?”

“Me.”

Carol put her hands on her hips. “Let me tell you, Craig, I’m a registered nurse and I’m perfectly capable of telling if someone is alive or dead, and you’re very much alive.”

“Not in their eyes. The person they knew died today when they learnt the truth.”

Carol pulled the chair closer to the bed and sat down. She grasped Craig’s hand and squeezed gently. “And the truth is…?”

“That I’m a poof. That I’m a whore. That I sell my body to make money.” Tears welled up in Craig’s eyes as he felt cut off from a group of people he had called friends. “They don’t like the real me.”

* * *

Marc Stenski was troubled when he left Craig. The incident with the housemates two days earlier had been the breakthrough that Marc had been looking for, with Craig opening up and telling him what had been going on, but it didn’t make him happy. Craig had had several severe shocks in a short span of time and he was having trouble seeing past them. Marc headed down the corridor to the lifts and waited for one to arrive. In his professional opinion, Craig was still borderline suicidal, and Marc knew it wouldn’t take much to push him over the edge.

Marc took the lift down to the pathology labs. He asked to see Doctor Sheldan, and was ushered into a private office.

“Marc! I didn’t expect to see you so soon. How did it go?”

“I didn’t tell him. I’m not sure it’s the right time. Craig Prendegast is in an extremely depressed state, and I didn’t want to aggravate it.”

Ray Sheldan frowned. “I don’t think there will ever be a right time. The sooner, the better, I would suggest.”

“Tell me more about the test result and what it means. I want to make sure I haven’t misinterpreted what you’ve already told me.”

Ray’s gaze unfocused as he spoke in a detached tone. “After we learnt from Barton that he and Prendegast were working as male prostitutes, I ordered extra tests. We’re lucky to have them — they’ve only recently become available. There’s a new disease that’s begun appearing in Australia: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The antibodies test that’s just been released shows that Prendegast has this disease. Barton doesn’t, though we’ll ask him to be retested in a couple of months. It’s spread through the exchange of bodily fluids, usually during sex, or by contact with the blood of an infected person.” Ray focused his attention back to Marc. “It’s fatal, and there’s currently no known cure. The only good part for young Prendegast is that it doesn’t kill quickly. It destroys the immune system of its victims, and then they die from other diseases.”

Marc gulped. He could guess how Craig would react to being told that he was under a death sentence.

Deliverance

Craig stared at the ceiling, wondering for the umpteenth time what he was going to do. It had taken him a few days to get to the point that he no longer broke down when he contemplated the reality of the diagnosis he had been given. Petria Kowalski was knitting quietly in the corner, the rhythmic clicking of her needles somehow soothing Craig.

A knock at the door roused a small degree of curiosity, so Craig turned his head enough to see who was there. His eyes widened as he recognised the face

“Brett!”

Mrs. Kowalski lowered her knitting to her lap and watched as Brett entered, carrying a cardboard box. She recognised the name and was curious as to why he was there. Brett stopped when he noticed her.

“If this is a bad time, I can come back later.”

Craig noted that Brett wouldn’t make eye contact with him for more than a moment. “It’s okay. I was just resting.”

“Don’t mind me,” Mrs. Kowalski said. “I’ve just been keeping Craig company.” She put aside her knitting and stood up. “I think I’ll go for a short walk.”

Brett put the box on the floor at the end of Craig’s bed as Mrs. Kowalski left to room. He flashed Craig a guilty look and then walked over and stared out the window.

“It’s good to see you again, Brett. I didn’t think I would.”

“Yeah… I wasn’t sure you would, either. Telling us you’re gay was a big surprise to all of us.”

Craig wanted to ask about Phil and Keith, but he wasn’t sure what he would hear and decided it was better to wait for Brett to mention them.

“What’s in the box?”

Brett turned to face Craig. He opened his mouth but nothing came out. He dropped his gaze to the floor and trudged back to the end of the bed before responding.

“Some of your stuff — the things I thought you’d want most. I’ve got the rest in another box in my car. I wasn’t sure where you’d like me to put it.”

“My stuff?”

Brett shuffled his feet. “Yeah.” He looked up, his expression an odd mix of guilt and pleading. “I was happy to have you stay. Well, not happy, but I thought I could get used to it. You’ve been a good housemate, and I didn’t think that would change, now that we know, but Phil and Keith disagreed.”

“What do you mean?” Brett’s quick speech had left Craig behind, and it was taking him time to process what had been said.

Brett looked away. “You missed a rent payment, so Keith and Phil said you’re out. I’m sorry, Craig, I really am.”

“Keith missed a payment a few months ago. He wasn’t kicked out because of it!”

“I know, and I said that, but they… they just can’t handle it, Craig. If I hadn’t said I’d bring your stuff here, they’d have just thrown it out on the street.” Brett didn’t want to tell Craig some of the things the others had said. He personally felt uncomfortable being in the room with Craig, but he recognised that that was his problem, not the fault of the guy in the hospital bed.

“You might as well throw it out — I don’t think I’m going to have much need for anything.”

Brett’s head shot up at the bitter tone. “Why not?”

It was Craig’s turn to look around. “I’m dying. Somehow, I’ve picked up an STD that’s going to kill me.”

Brett blinked. “Dying?”

Craig gave a snort of self-mocking laughter. “Yeah, ironic, isn’t it? I stepped in front of a bus as a birthday present to myself, and messed that up by living, only to find out I’ve got an incurable disease that’s going to kill me sooner or later anyway.”

“You stepped in front of the bus on purpose?” Brett wasn’t thinking clearly and just picked up on the first thing that stuck in his mind.

“I’m seventeen years old, with no skills. My only source of money is selling my body. What do I have to live for?”

“Seventeen? But I thought you just turned twenty! We got your date of birth from the rental documents.”

Craig shrugged. “I lied. Who was going to let a fifteen-year-old rent a room?”

Brett stepped forward and put a hand on Craig’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’ll see if this changes things with the other guys, but I don’t think it will. In the meantime, would you like me to keep your other box of stuff in my car? I can do that for a couple of weeks, if you like.”

Craig smiled his thanks. “I suppose so. I don’t know what else to do with it.”

“You can leave it at my place,” Mrs. Kowalski said from where she stood in the doorway.

“Mrs. K! I didn’t see you there.” Craig was surprised when Brett snatched his hand away, but then scowled as he realised that Brett didn’t want to be seen showing to a gay guy what might be construed as affection.

Mrs. Kowalski smiled at both guys. “I’ve been listening just outside. My husband told me it was a bad habit of mine, but I don’t want Craig getting hurt.” She winked. “I hope you’ll forgive me.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Craig muttered. The short burst of positive feelings from Brett’s initial actions was gone, and he just wanted to be left alone. He rolled his head so he wouldn’t have to look at the others. He didn’t want them to see the tears that were forming, though he told himself they were caused by the pain from his injuries, not the pain in his heart.

Mrs. Kowalski narrowed her eyes, as if she was reading Craig’s thoughts. “I think you could do with some more sleep. Marc said he’ll be back later for another chat, and you don’t want to be tired for that.” She gathered Brett up with her eyes. “Come with me and I’ll show you where I live.”

“Okay.” Brett glanced back at Craig. “Good luck, mate. I’ll try to get back to see you again, but I don’t know if I can.”

“Whatever,” Craig muttered again, not bothering to look at his visitor.

Ten minutes after Mrs. Kowalski and Brett had left, there was another knock at the door. Craig didn’t bother looking. “Go away.”

A rich, Irish accent replied. “I’d love to, but I’ve got a job to do.”

Craig glanced over and saw a tall, middle-aged man with red hair and a very broad grin. “Who are you?” The clerical collar and lapel cross told Craig the guy’s profession, but the smile and accent tweaked his curiosity.

“Can I come in?” Without waiting for an answer, the man entered and stood next to Craig’s bed. “I’m Father Paul McIntyre, but you can call me Father Paul — everyone does.”

Craig rolled his eyes. “That’s all I need, a fucking priest.”

Father Paul’s smile didn’t budge at the crudity. He sat down and stretched out his legs. “They don’t make these chairs for someone of my size. I’ve been working here for a few years now, and they still haven’t fixed them, despite my constant complaints. One nurse had the cheek to tell me that it’ll help me look forward to Heaven more, since I’ll know what’s in store for me if I’m not good.” He winked at Craig.

“What are you doing here? I’m not Catholic.”

“Isn’t that a dandy coincidence — neither am I! My wife would be mightily disappointed if I changed religions, because I wouldn’t be allowed to be married if I was Catholic.”

“Huh?”

Father Paul laughed at Craig’s confusion. The deep rumbling forced a smile onto Craig’s lips.

“I take it you’re not Anglican either, then, son.”

Craig scowled. “No, and I’m not your son!”

“I do apologise. I’ve got a bad habit of calling everyone son — except the women, of course. If I do it again, just reply, ‛Yes, old man,’ and I’ll take the hint.”

Craig found himself warming to the affable Irishman. “So, what are you doing here, old man?”

Father Paul grinned. “A wonderful lady by the name of Petria Kowalski came to the chaplain’s office the other day, and asked for the Catholic priest. Unfortunately, Father Matthew was off sick — an occupational hazard when working in a hospital — and so I got the story. It seems she thought you might be in need of some assistance. Something about you having lost your way and that you might need a helping hand to find it again.”

Craig looked away. “You’re wasting your time. I’m beyond help.”

“Ah, but you see, that’s my speciality. I don’t believe anyone is beyond help.”

Craig glared at the priest. “Do you know what I am? What I’ve done? I was a whore, a prostitute. Someone who fucked other guys for money! You don’t want to know me.”

Father Paul smiled back impassively. “Did you know that our Lord Jesus associated with prostitutes and tax collectors?” He grinned. “I’m not that good. I don’t think I’m ready for tax collectors.”

“You don’t understand! You don’t know what I’ve done. I gave blowjobs for money. I laid down and let guys stick their cock up my arse, just for the sake of a few bucks.”

Father Paul chuckled. “If you’re trying to shock me, you’re not even close. I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve heard almost everything.” His gaze pinned Craig to the pillow. “I know what you’ve done, and I know something of the price you’ve paid.” Father Paul scowled and looked away. “After speaking to a few people, I tracked down your parents and rang them.” He glanced back at Craig and smiled. “If that’s the sort of people who raised you, I think you’ve turned out exceptionally well. Mrs. Kowalski’s told me of how you’ve looked after the new boys on the streets, and how you’ve always tried to do right by everyone.”

“You leave my parents out of this! They’re great people who raised me well!”

“And then threw you out of your home,” Father Paul replied with a soft voice that underscored Craig’s angry tone.

Craig’s feelings for his parents were mixed, but he remembered the good times before he was thrown out. He held onto those memories with a tight grasp. “Maybe I deserved it.”

Father Paul shook his head in admiration. “Even after all they’ve done, you’re still defending them. You’re an amazing young man, Craig.”

“A dying young man,” Craig replied bitterly. “Did anyone tell you about that part?”

“They did, and they gave me all the details I need. You’ve still got a life ahead of you. You’re not going to die tomorrow, or even next month. You could have years ahead of you, even if they don’t discover a cure soon. Use what you’ve got, rather than moan about what you haven’t.”

Craig snorted and rolled over so he could stare out the window at the grey sky. “What have I got? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing to live for.”

Father Paul settled back in the chair. “Why do you say that?’

“Health? Nope. Money? Nope. A home? Nope — I’ve just learnt they kicked me out. A future? I can’t go back to doing what I’ve been doing; I’d just be killing someone else. But I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve got nothing!”

“Friends? Petria Kowalski to name one. I suspect Andrew Barton would still count you as a friend, even if his parents disagree. You can add me to that list, too.”

There was a grunt from the bed. “You’re all better off without me in your lives. Andy’s mum made that very clear. The sooner I’m dead, the better.”

Father Paul stood up, reached over, and laid a hand on Craig’s shoulder. “You’ve got more than you realise. I can’t do much about your health, but I’ll see what I can do about the other issues. Just give me some time. Don’t go checking out before you find out what’s in store.”

Craig twitched at Father Paul’s touch. It too strongly echoed Brett’s recent action. He stared up at the priest. “You know you’re touching a poofter. Aren’t you afraid you might catch it?”

“My, aren’t we a bit touchy.” Father Paul dropped the smile to emphasise his words. “You’re a very lucky young man. That bus should’ve done more to you than it did. Some of that is because you just happened to get one of the best trauma surgeons around to treat you. Some of it is because the broken bones failed to seriously injure any of your vital organs. I don’t think you’re ready to leave this world yet, young man. Why don’t we take some time to see if there’s a reason you’re still alive — something you can still do?”

“God has a plan for me, I suppose,” Craig said, rolling his eyes.

Father Paul ignored the sarcasm. “He has a plan for everyone. If I can find you some hope for a better life, will you look at it?”

“I don’t see how, but if you can perform miracles, yeah, I’ll look.”

“Good, because I intend to work hard on this one. I don’t give up easily.”

Craig closed his eyes. “Maybe I should become a tax collector. Then you wouldn’t have to deal with me anymore.”

Father Paul laughed. “You’re a cruel man, Craig, using my own weaknesses against me.” He paused while he took in the tired young man. “I’ll be back, I promise. Just do me a favour and think about who you’ve got on your side, rather than who you don’t. You’re not alone, and never will be. For now, though, I think you need your rest.”

* * *

Under the watchful eye of the doctor and with the assistance of the nurse, Craig took his first steps since the accident. It wasn’t much, just a short walk to the toilet, but it was a sign that he was getting ready to leave the hospital. Craig’s feelings were mixed. He’d had enough of the constant attention from the nurses, doctors, Marc and Father Paul, but he was fearful of what would happen to him after he walked out the door.

A couple of hours after he had taken those first steps, Mrs. Kowalski and Father Paul stopped in to see Craig. Both were smiling, and Mrs Kowalski was carrying a basket.

“I believe congratulations are in order, son,” Father Paul said.

Craig grinned. The Anglican priest had worn him down and had played a major part in breaking his cycle of negativity. He was sure that Father Paul had deliberately slipped with his ‘son’ reference, to allow him a flippant reply. “Thanks, old man.”

Mrs. Kowalski frowned. “Don’t be cheeky. Father Paul has done a lot for you.”

Father Paul chuckled. “It’s all right, Petria. Craig and I have an understanding. If he’s my son, then that makes me his old man.”

She sniffed. “It’s still not right. I thought he was a nicer boy than that.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. K. I know how much I owe Father Paul. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him.”

“You can repay me in the way our Lord told us. Love your neighbour, help others, do what you can to give others hope.” Father Paul gave Craig a crooked smile. “And I know just how you can do that.”

“What?” Craig was surprised.

“But before we discuss that, Petria has brought us a nice picnic tea to celebrate your first steps. The least we can do is to enjoy it.”

Mrs. Kowalski put her basket on the floor and took out a thermos, three china cups, some paper plates, and a plastic container from which she produced a small marble cake. “It’s not much, but it’s what I had in the house when Father Paul called with the news.”

Craig licked his lips while he put his curiosity on hold. “If you cooked it, it’s going to be fantastic.” He winked. “You know it’s been your cooking that’s kept me alive for the last month. I couldn’t take the food here any longer.”

“Don’t exaggerate,” Mrs. Kowalski said, while smiling at the compliment.

They settled down and had their cake and cups of tea while talking about how much progress Craig had been making in his recovery.

“Your friend, Brett, dropped in to see me yesterday. He’s been fixing some shelves for me that had started to fall down.”

Craig sighed.

“And what was that for? Is my cooking that bad?”

“Your cooking is terrific, as always. No, it’s just that Brett hasn’t been back to see me since he dropped off my stuff.”

“I know,” she said. “He told me. He feels guilty about that, but he’s too scared to come back here. He won’t admit it, of course, but it was obvious to me. He’s scared of you.”

“Me? What’s there to be scared of?”

Father Paul responded. “I haven’t met him, but from what Petria has told me I suspect he’s ashamed of how you’ve been treated, and doesn’t know how to deal with it. He’s let it slide for so long that he’s feeling guilty for not coming to see you earlier, too. It’s easier for him to stay away, rather than to face up to all of that.”

Mrs. Kowalski nodded. “From what he said, I think you’re right. He’d like to do the proper thing, but he doesn’t know how.”

Craig realised that Father Paul was probably right, and that helped him accept Brett’s actions, even though he would have liked to have seen him again. Another friend who hadn’t disappeared would have been nice. “Do you think I should go see him when I get out?”

“That’s up to you, but you’re going to be busy, and it’s a long way from where you’ll be initially living,” Father Paul said dryly.

Craig had to quickly swallow his mouthful of cake. “You’ve found somewhere for me to stay?”

“More than that, I’ve found you a job, too. You’ll need some training, which is why you’ll be away for a while, but then you’ll be back here and working hard.”

Craig waited for more information, but then glanced at Mrs. Kowalski as the Irish priest just sat there with an amused grin on his face.

“Mrs. K., do you know what he’s talking about?”

“I know he’s found you something to do, but I don’t know what,” she said, though a twinkle in her eye made Craig suspect she was lying.

“Well? Is anyone going to tell me?”

Father Paul grinned at Craig. “Do you remember back when we first met, and you told me that you didn’t have any skills?”

“You mean apart from…” Craig paused momentarily as he searched for a polite way to say what he wanted to say, though Mrs. Kowalski already knew the truth “…working the streets?”

“That’s right. Well, I’m here to tell you that you do have other skills, marketable skills, that just happen to be in demand at the moment,” Father Paul said.

“Go on. Tell me, because I can’t think of any.” Craig knew Father Paul would inform him eventually, but sometimes the Irishman liked to stretch the anticipation.

“You know about working the streets.”

“Yeah, but I can’t do that anymore. You know that.”

Father Paul grinned. “I do, but I didn’t say you’ll be working the streets. I said you know about working the streets.”

“You’ve confused me. I haven’t got the foggiest idea of what you’re talking about.”

Father Paul laughed. “Okay, I’ll come to the point. I’ve got a friend who works for the Melbourne City Mission. They need counsellors and other staff to work with the poor and homeless in Melbourne. I wonder who I know who might understand the plight of the homeless, and life on the streets, from personal experience?” He tapped a finger against his cheek while he looked thoughtful.

“You want me to help? But I don’t know anything about counselling!” Craig was initially keen, but then scaled back his expectations as he realised he couldn’t do the job.

“True, but your personal experiences make up for a lot of that, so Brendan is willing to have you trained, which is why you’re going to be away for a while. He sees you as being a good long-term asset to the organisation.” Father Paul grinned.

Craig smiled as he realised how well the job would suit him. He then frowned as he remembered a complication. “What about this disease I’ve got?”

“He knows about that, but he also knows that you’ve still got years of productive work in you.” Father Paul winked. “He budgets on keeping someone for three years, and anything after that is a bonus. I’m sure you’ll last a lot longer than three years.”

“And what makes you think you’ll be the only one who catches it?” Mrs. Kowalski added. “Others are going to need assistance to come to terms with it. You can help them.”

Craig looked at both Father Paul and Mrs. Kowalski. A grin stretched across his face as he saw a future for himself — a future that he felt would allow him to atone for things he’d done wrong.

“Thank you. Thanks to both of you, for all you’ve done. I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you.”

* * *

“Get the fuck away from me! I just want to be left alone,” the raven-haired youth yelled at Rochelle, momentarily silencing the room rented by the Melbourne City Mission to assist the homeless in the St. Kilda area.

Rochelle jumped up, clearly disturbed, and headed towards Craig, who abandoned his paperwork and rose to meet her.

“He’s… he’s…” Rochelle’s frustration was showing in the way she clenched her fists as she raised them in front of her. “I want to help him, but he won’t let me!”

“Maybe I can try,” Craig said.

“Would you? I don’t know how to get through to him. He doesn’t think anyone understands.”

Craig smiled. “I’ll see what I can do. His name’s Eric, isn’t it?”

“That’s what he says.” Rochelle sighed and reached out to put a hand on Craig’s arm. “Good luck, Craig, but be careful. I don’t like losing anyone, and I think he’s on the edge.”

Craig nodded and limped towards the young man. As he approached, he took in Eric’s pale complexion and his nervous twitches. From Craig’s experiences, he guessed that Eric was a drug addict, or at least a user.

“Hi, I’m Craig!” Craig made his greeting cheerful.

“Fuck off.”

“That’s not very nice. I only said hello.” Craig dropped into the seat opposite Eric and gave a partially exaggerated sigh of relief. Walking was still not comfortable, and he knew it wasn’t going to get any better. It was a constant reminder of his past and what he had been through.

“I said, fuck off!”

“If you don’t want people around, why are you here?” Craig asked. He knew he was on the right track by the way Eric became wary and wouldn’t meet his eyes.

When Eric didn’t respond, Craig continued. “We’re here to help. We’re not miracle workers, but if we can do something, we do it.”

“No one can help me. You’ve got no fucking idea what it’s like.” Eric’s voice was low, with a heavy dose of disdain.

“Do you think so? Do you think you’re the only one who’s been through hell?”

Eric lifted his head and glared at Craig. “There are some things you don’t understand if you haven’t been through them. You might’ve been told a few things, but you don’t know!”

Craig heard the echo of his own words and smiled. He knew how to get through to Eric and to start repaying the debt he felt he owed Father Paul. It would be the first time since he had commenced work that he would be able to draw upon his prior experiences to directly help someone. “If I can prove I do know, will you let me try to help you?”

Eric gave a slow nod, suspicious of Craig’s affable demeanour.

Craig settled himself for a long chat. “I’ve been through things, too. That’s how I know. My story starts when I was fifteen and my father threw me out of the house, via the lounge room window…”

Copyright Notice - Copyright © March 2008 by Graeme.

The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form — physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise — without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.

Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.

I would like to thank Rain and Aaron from The Mail Crew for editing this story for me. They’ve done a fantastic job and I couldn’t do without them. I would also like to thank my friends Kel, Ray and C James for reading and commenting on an early draft. Their input has also helped to make this story what it is.

For those readers who have not recognised it, this story is set in the same world as my novel New Brother. Craig was mentioned in the scene at the end of chapter eight. I started this story three and a half years ago, but never completed it. It was when I realised how well it fit the theme of the Gay Authors 2008 Spring Anthology that I was finally motivated to finish the story.