At first, the only sound I hear is my feet slapping the pavement, rubber on cement. Then, gradually the wind begins to roar in my ears, drowning out anything else. I cringe as Jack Frost nips, not my nose, but the corners of my eyes. I imagine they are rimmed with red, wet at the corners. My hair swishes behind me and my own unsteady, shaking gasps for air fill my ears, unusually loud. I must be going fast, I am going fast, but it all seems slow motion to me. My surroundings are just a blur of different colors, yet somehow I know where I am going. Angry shouts come from behind me and I can almost hear my heart pulsing to the beat of Panic’s drum. My throat is dry, itchy and consuming air as fast as it can. I want to pause and swallow, but there’s no time. I just push my feet to go harder, telling myself that the pain will fade if I go faster.
A quick turn of the corner and I’m now in a dark alley. The stench of the wide, nearby river floats through and I can smell sea water and steam, fish and garbage. It is a disgusting smell, but I love it all the same, for it is the only smell I know that carries home within it. I no longer hear angry yells behind me, only faint bellows from men on barges and docks, so I allow myself to slow down. The rhythmic beat of my feet quiets and is now a steady, slow tempo. My heart is no longer pounding; I have reached the safety of the sea. I twist and turn the corners, before breaking out into fresh sea air. Not sunlight, no, there is hardly ever sunlight. The river, and the sea beyond it, are always muggy and foggy, hazy skies that make the tourists cough. I rush through the busy dock, ducking under loading cranes and hooks, dodging men and jumping over crates. I don’t bother trying to be inconspicuous; nobody ever notices me, as long as I stay out of the way. I am just another homeless child to them.
I’m almost there. I breathe in the warm sea air, glad for the pollution and steam in the air. If not for it, I would’ve froze months ago. I quickly slip underneath the large dock and walk along the rocky path beneath. It’s amazing being under the dock, because the sounds from above are muffled, but still quite loud. You can sit with your toes right near the edge of the water, watching the sun set. You are perfectly alone, yet you still feel connected to the world above you. I walk until I get to the rock wall, not man made, but where man first began to build the dock on. To most, it would look just like a slab of rock but, if you happen to walk to the right side of it, there is an opening, just wide enough for a girl about my size to fit in. Inside, the rock itself is hollow and dry.
I slip in through the opening, my heavy breathing suddenly echoing in this hollow space. Light from outside faintly illuminates the cave. I drop down onto my “bed,” or rather a pile of blankets. Now that no noise surrounds me and I’m not scared of getting caught, I notice how hungry I really am. My stomach growling, I dump out my loot. Two apples, one slightly bruised, a loaf of bread, a small, squished wheel of cheese and a jug of water. I feel a pang of guilt for stealing. I didn’t always steal. But there are few places to earn money and few people who will offer them to a young girl. When finally it reached the point that my ribs were noticeable through my shirt and I was digging through trash cans, I realized that I couldn’t survive like this. I resorted to stealing.
While even though I do steal, I never take more than necessary, never anything fancy, and I always take from the greedy, rich, and fat people. They have more food than they need and they’re easier to outrun. Today, I stole from Mister Gabrish’s cart. He’s fat and sells his food overpriced to the tourists. While he was trying to convince a couple with cameras that his potatoes were one of a kind, I slowly began to slip things into my bag. Unfortunately, the tourists didn’t buy it and he turned around as I just got the water into my bag. He chased after me for a while, but ran out of breath and instead chose to curse angrily at me as I disappeared into the distance.
I rip off a chunk of bread ravenously and am about to stuff it into my mouth when I hear an angry yell from above. Not one of the normal yells. I quickly slide out of the cave and go up to the dock to see what is happening. Ducking behind a crate, everything seems normal, but then I hear the man yell again and I see a little girl, covered in fish, cowering, in front of the angry man. She is wearing torn clothes and looks so small next to the man on the dock. Maybe I’m so hungry, that I blank out for a minute or maybe I see some of myself in the little girl, but for some reason, I do something that surprises me. With the agility of someone who has lived on the dock for years, I make my way over to the little girl in two seconds, scoop her up and say to the man, “Sister.” Then I am gone, making my way back to the cave, before the man can even open his mouth to respond.
I grip the little girl tightly, in case she tries to escape. But she shows no signs of struggle and doesn’t try to run away when I set her down below the dock. Close up now, I can see she is around four years of age. Her hair is black, her face stained with dirt, clean where tears had run down it, and she reeks of fish. She now has her thumb in her mouth, her face is tightly drawn, fear etched along the lines.
“Hello,” I say. I try to make my voice kind. I haven’t spoken in ages; who was there to talk to? “I won’t hurt you. I’m a friend.”
She stares back with big, doubtful eyes.
“Are you hungry?” I ask. She hesitates, then nods slowly.
“I have food.” I walk into the cave, then lean out and beckon for her to follow. Taking little, unsteady steps, she walks in. Her eyes light up with desperate longing when she sees the food.
“Do you want some?” I offer up the ripped chunk of bread. She nods and reaches out to grab it. Then I notice how dirty her hands are and how bits of fish still clung to her. I pull back the bread and she looks confused, like she was about to cry.
“Oh no,” I quickly say. “you can still have food. But you’re dirty and covered in fish.”
She looks down at herself, then back up at me. I grab a chunk of soap I use when I feel I am a little too dirty and hold out my hand to the little girl. Tentatively, she takes it. I lead her out to the shore. The light is fading and the sun looks like it is melting into the sea. I need to hurry before it gets too cold. I help the little girl take off her rags, then I lead her to the water.
Suddenly, she pulls away with a cry.
“What’s wrong?” I ask, alarmed. She shakes her head frantically, pointing to the water.
“You don’t like the water?” I ask. She shakes her head mournfully. I smile at her fear, because it seems so unreal to me. “But the water is my best friend.”
She looks at me questioningly.
“It’s true,” I nod, “the sea is my best friend and my home. Look at it, ” I point. “Look how big it is. It connects everything together. As long as you are near the sea, you are never trapped. There is always somewhere to go. The sea is everything and everywhere. I once heard that the Earth is 3/4 water. I don’t have a family and I don’t have a home. So the sea is my home. The sea is constantly there. It isn’t scary. It’s just there.”
I look over at the little girl who is staring, wide-eyed at me. At first I feel a bit embarrassed, but then she smiles. She reaches over to grab my hand and starts to go to the water. Step by step, she goes into the water and soon she is up to her waist. I begin to wash her down with the soap. I know the water isn’t very clean, but beggars can’t be choosers. When she is finally washed down, I quickly lead her into the cave and wrap a blanket around her. The temperature is dropping and I don’t want her to catch a cold.
While she eats bread and cheese, I take her clothes and scrub them best I can in the water. They are still stained and torn some, but they are clean. I hang them to dry in the cave doorway. After we eat some, I split up my blankets, giving her one more than me. It is dark in the cave and she falls asleep easily, her stomach full. I, however, stay awake listening to the soft sighs of her breathing mixed with the slapping of water on rocks. The sea whispers to me softly as I doze off, filling my dreams with waves, soap, and the smell of smog in the air.