Seth hated the uncertainty of the dark, but he’d learned to throttle his fear. On the streets, survival had been more important than giving in to panic. Now, helping was the driving force that helped keep his unease at bay.
He clapped his hands as he waited beside the coffee truck for his order, keeping an eye on his surroundings out of habit. It was bitterly cold. He’d turned the collar of his black leather jacket up to ward off the harsh wind. Thick fingerless mitts did little to warm his hands. His breath frosted on the air, hanging like a ghost before dissipating into the darkness.
“Here you go, Seth, half a dozen black coffees. And here’s another two, on the house.”
“Thanks, Joe. Those extra coffees will be appreciated.”
“I’m sure they will,” Joe nodded. “You take care, now.”
Seth grinned up at him. “I always do.”
The thick paper cups had been slotted into a couple of carriers, making it possible for Seth to juggle them, along with the bulging carrier bag and camera he was already carrying. He never went anywhere without his camera. It was old and battered, but it was reliable and took great pictures. The rucksack on his back was stuffed full of bits and pieces of warm clothing he’d picked up from the thrift store.
Seth headed away from the main road, into poorly lit back streets stinking of piss and littered with trash. They were home to the city’s invisible problem; the people politicians wanted to sweep into the gutter and pretend didn’t exist. But the homeless did exist. They were a mixed bag of unfortunates who couldn’t find a way out of their shitty situation: veterans who couldn’t adjust to life after discharge; addicts whose vices led to a loss of everything including their pride; unlucky sods who had lost their jobs and then watched their lives fall apart.
Then there were the frightened kids; the runaways who were scared to stay, but too frightened to go back to whatever it was they’d fled. Seth had been like them once, and he couldn’t bring himself to turn a blind eye to any of them.
He was known on the streets by sight and by name and he knew most of them by sight, if not by name. He’d sat and listened to dozens of stories on nights colder than this. Sometimes, company was all they needed; someone to listen and make them feel as if they mattered. If that was the most he could do, Seth was more than willing to give them his time.
A familiar man shuffled towards him. Cal had been medically discharged from the army after taking shrapnel from a landmine to the leg. As a result, he walked with a severe limp.
“Coffee!” he exclaimed. “Seth’s brought supplies, lads!” He eagerly took one of the cups of still hot coffee from Seth with grubby hands. “You’re a good lad. What else have you got?”
Cal hugged the styrofoam cup against his chest with one hand, while he ran the other over greasy, disheveled hair. The gray-streaked dark locks had grown out to his shoulders. Salt and pepper whiskers covered his chin and partially obscured his lips. He stared eagerly through warm hazel eyes at the plastic bag Seth carried.
Seth half-smiled as he shook his head. “Cut to the chase, why don’t you?”
“You don’t get what you don’t ask for.”
Seth released one of the bag handles, allowing it to hang open, so Cal could reach inside and grab a handful of granola bars. He stuffed them into the pockets of his filthy, oversized trench coat, nodding his thanks.
“You’re a good lad,” he repeated. “A good lad. Say, did I tell you about my last tour of Iraq?”
Seth smiled. Cal had told him, several times.
“Let me go hand out these coffees before they get cold, then I’ll come sit with you, and you can tell me all about it. Okay?”
“I’ll hold you to that,” Cal pretended his finger and thumb was a gun, winking as he spoke.
Seth left Cal and carried on, glancing over his shoulder every few paces, or whenever he heard a noise that caused his pulse to quicken; there were too many noises in the dark.
He fixed a smile on his face as he handed out the coffees and granola bars, sometimes exchanging words with the recipients, other times nodding in acknowledgment with a thankful grunt. Not everyone wanted to talk, not everyone was grateful for the small amount of help he was able to give, and Seth had learned who to avoid. There were men—and women—who simply wanted to be left alone and, as long as he did that, they didn’t bother him in return.
The clothes—hats, gloves, and scarves—he reserved for those who looked the coldest or most vulnerable. There were a couple of kids who’d been hanging around this block of streets for the last couple of weeks, so he made sure to check in on them. Not that they spoke to him. They stared at him with wide, wary eyes, grabbing food and clothes from him with jerky movements that made them resemble feral cats. Even so, he unfolded a flyer from his pocket and held it out to them.
“There’s a shelter on Bowery. It might still have room if you get there quickly enough. At the very least, you should be able to get some hot food. It’ll be warmer and safer than here.”
The smaller of the kids, a girl with wild hair, snatched the flyer from his fingertips.
Seth kept the last cup of coffee, now barely lukewarm, for the man who always sat alone, distant from the rest. There was something about him that mesmerized Seth in a way he couldn’t describe. It was probably the man’s eyes, which were a vivid shade of blue that pierced even the darkest night. He sat on the same bench every night, huddled in a tatty black trench coat.
“Seth.” Blue Eyes nodded his thanks as he wrapped his hands around the cup Seth handed to him.
“It’s not very warm, I’m afraid.”
Blue Eyes shrugged, never taking his gaze off Seth as he sipped the coffee. His dark hair fell to his shoulders in waves, framing his handsome face. His olive skin tone made him appear healthier than the rest, although Seth was reasonably sure that was deceptive. A short beard and mustache helped further define his broad chin and sculpted cheekbones. Seth thought to ask his name, but couldn’t convince the question to leave his lips.
He was always like that around Blue Eyes: tongue-tied and awkward. The man was incredibly gorgeous, and Seth couldn’t help but be physically attracted to him. Maybe in another lifetime, under very different circumstances, he would have the confidence to ask Blue Eyes more about himself; discover the mysteries sparkling in the depths of his eyes. But things were what they were and showing interest in the man was wholly inappropriate. So, instead of asking Blue Eyes his name, he uttered a goodbye and turned to go.
A loud crack ricocheted around the street, the sound echoing off tall brick buildings. It made Seth’s ears ring. Made his heart leap and his chest seize. His fingers twitched to grasp his camera, holding it so tightly his hands shook. His legs itched to run but were too heavy to move.
He was back there, staring through the lens of his camera, too scared to move lest he made a noise that would cause the Doctor to look at him. He saw—but couldn’t help—the groveling man, who had fallen to his knees, the barrel of a gun pressed against the back of his head. The soft electronic click of his camera shutter made Seth wince. He held his breath, but no one glanced his way. Click. He captured the Doctor’s face as he loomed over his neighbor immortalized the terror ingrained in the man’s face. Click. It hadn’t been a conscious act, but he’d caught the moment the gun fired, the flash of light that burst out of the muzzle. Oh, God. The blood. His whole body jerked back, slamming into the trash cans behind him. The Doctor looked at Seth, and he fled into the darkness—ran so fast he thought his chest would burst.
“Seth?” Blue Eyes’ soft voice shocked him back to the moment. Blue Eyes was standing beside him, a hand gently but firmly gripping Seth’s arm. Christ, Blue Eyes was tall.
Seth shook himself. “Damn car backfiring,” he said, trying to shrug off his fear with a faint smile. Ten years and he still couldn’t scrub the memory out of his head.
“Maybe you should go home now,” Blue Eyes said. “You’ve done all you can for tonight.” Seth blinked as he gazed up and down the street. Had he? He was out of coffee, and his bags were empty, but he could grab more supplies, either at Joe’s coffee truck or the 7-11 down the street.
“Go home,” Blue Eyes urged, his voice a little more insistent.
“I...” Seth stepped away from Blue Eyes’ grasp. “I should go home.”
Still gripping his camera, he hurried away with long, urgent strides, no thoughts in his head, except the urge to go home where it would be light and safe.