Can You Spare a Quarter

by Tigerpaw

Chapter 5

First Steps

Graham led Jamie along the side of the house towards his car. Once again, just as when they had first arrived at the apartment, Jamie was completely underwhelmed as Graham stopped next to an old white two-door subcompact and began to unlock it. Jamie did not say anything, but, just like Graham's small apartment, this did not look like the sort of car that someone claiming to have a house on Valdez Island would be driving. In addition to being rather small the car was quite old. Once they got in, similarly to the apartment, Jamie could see that it was simple, clean, and in good working order. In this regard, the car matched the small basement apartment and Jamie concluded that whatever else Graham might be, he did tend to exaggerate his lifestyle somewhat.

That Graham seemed prone to exaggeration did not trouble Jamie overly much. Jamie was not always completely accurate himself when people questioned him about his own life. Although, he was still surprised by how he had let his guard down with Graham earlier and cried. Graham was an unusual and apparently inconsistent mixture of things, mused Jamie, who was suddenly shaken out of his thinking as he heard Graham speak.

"What kinds of food do you like, Jamie?" asked Graham, as he backed the car out of the driveway and onto the street.

"I'll eat anything," Jamie replied rather vaguely. Then after thinking about it for a moment he added, "I can't eat peanuts and onions. Sometimes they do weird things to me."

"I guess that rules out peanut and onion casserole au gratin. Darn shame too, I really had my heart set on it," joked Graham.

Jamie giggled and added, "Honest, I like almost anything."

Graham suspected that while Jamie was likely speaking truthfully, his answer probably also tended to reflect the fact that Jamie most likely ate anything he could get his hands on as a result of being unsure when the next meal might arrive. Still, Graham was a bit of a food buff and knew a variety of places in town that were excellent, yet moderately priced. While Graham's attempts to reproduce certain dishes at home occasionally turned in mixed results, he knew good food and did not like frequenting places with mediocre fare. Considering Jamie's age and likely irregular meal schedule, Graham decided that he would probably be quite hungry and so after thinking for a moment, decided upon a restaurant, and turned the car to the right and began to drive towards the south.

The storm clouds that had been gathering in the afternoon had moved off after a brief sprinkling of snow and the sky was now completely clear. While this revealed a beautiful crescent moon just beginning to rise in the sky, it also removed the insulating effect that the clouds had been providing and the temperature was now turning bitterly cold, which was making the roads slick with black ice. Jamie could see his breath hanging in the cold air in front of him and he was glad of the leather jacket that Graham had lent him and also hoped that he would be able to convince Graham to let him stay the night. If he failed, it was going to be very difficult for Jamie to avoid frostbite or worse tonight if he had to go back onto the streets and try to find a place to sleep.

Graham used the back streets to avoid traffic lights as much as possible and about ten minutes later they turned into a parking lot behind a somewhat dirty orange pastel-coloured building. It did not look especially inviting and definitely needed a coat of fresh paint. The area the building was located in was also not the best. Next door was a small abandoned gambling casino, the parking lot while full of cars had asphalt severely cracked in multiple places with grass growing through it, and the entire city block was surrounded by busy streets on three sides while on the fourth side water lapped at an unkempt riverbank. Graham noticed Jamie's questioning look and smiled. Those not familiar with the place would never guess it was a restaurant and a very good one. Graham knew that one of the most important rules to always keep in mind was that ostentation in a restaurant was often an advance indicator of low quality. The rule tended to apply to people as well Graham had found.

Graham parked the car and they both got out. Walking towards the entrance to the building, Jamie saw the name of the restaurant on a sign that was hanging precariously by a hinge from the right side only: Saltwater Pete's Bone Yard. Jamie flashed a questioning look at Graham.

Seeing the look Graham said, "Trust me Jamie. I know you've never been able to trust anyone before, but believe me, you're going to really like this I think."

Jamie could not miss Graham's emphasis on trust. Trust was something that Jamie never gave anyone, he had learnt long ago not to. Despite that, however, Jamie found that he was at least starting to relax a little around Graham. Nevertheless, trusting someone to pick a restaurant was one thing, for the rest Jamie only trusted himself.

Graham opened the door to the restaurant, which creaked and protested, and they went in. Entering the foyer, a variety of new scents introduced themselves to Jamie. He sniffed at them, but they were not familiar and he could not quite place them. Graham walked up to the reception area to ask for a table while Jamie warmed his cold hands over a heat register.

"Yes sir, may I help you?" asked the Ma"tre D'.

"I'd like a table for two please," replied Graham.

"Perhaps over this way?" suggested the Ma"tre D' gesturing to one side of the room.

"Yes, that would be great. Preferably something off to the side a bit," replied Graham.

While they were escorted into the main dining area, Jamie's head moved back and forth scanning the interior of the restaurant. Then suddenly at one of the tables he spotted what it was that had been tantalizing his nose. Ribs! Winding their way through the tables scattered about on the floor towards their destination, Jamie keenly checked out the plates of the other seated customers and his mouth watered. Jamie had never had ribs before.

These were not the tiny little pathetic excuses for spareribs that one often found in westernized Chinese restaurants either, the kind where one basically just licked the sauce off and then put them back onto the plate. No, these ribs were big and they were covered in meat and dripping with sauce. Everyone was wearing a bib around their necks and they were licking their fingers in between biting off large chunks of meat from the ribs that covered their plates to overflowing. On each table there was a small galvanized metal bucket that the polished-off bones were being dropped into in addition to a stack of serviettes for when the licking of fingers proved insufficient. Jamie's stomach began to make its desires known to him in completely unmistakable terms.

Graham sat on a seat on the left side of a table near the back of the room while Jamie slipped off his backpack. He placed it under the table on the side opposite to Graham and then sat on a chair directly over it keeping his legs tightly against it. Once they were seated, the Ma"tre D' placed menus in front of each of them and then walked away.

Graham looked across at Jamie and asked, "Did I do a good job in picking?"

"Oh yes!" replied Jamie with obvious excitement. No matter what might happen later he thought to himself it was going to be worth it now.

Graham picked up the menu and encouraged Jamie to do the same. Looking down the list of selections Graham contemplated the same difficult decisions he always did here. Beef or pork? Montreal-style, Virginia- style, BBQ, honey-mustard ... and of course the key question of all - how big a plateful? Graham completely ignored the obligatory hamburger and pasta dishes that all specialty restaurants had to include at the bottom of their menus for those that for whatever reason could not or would not have the house specialty.

"What do you see that looks good?" Graham asked Jamie.

"I don't want to cost you a lot," said Jamie, seeing the prices listed in the menu while simultaneously staring with eyes big as saucers at the plates of ribs on tables nearby. "I don't know what to pick."

Seeing Jamie's hungry gaze as he looked at the food on the tables near them Graham said, "How about you let me do the ordering then, OK?"

Jamie nodded and breathed a sigh of relief. He would kill to have some of those ribs, but the prices he had seen next to the selections in the menu worried him. He did not want to annoy Graham and lose out completely. At the same time he could not help himself and kept stealing glances at the other tables and the people at them eating.

Graham signalled to a passing waiter and began to recite off items from the menu. Jamie was not sure exactly what Graham was ordering, but the names all sounded wonderful. Ordering a medium-sized edition of the Montreal-style ribs for himself Graham thought for a moment and picked out a large-sized combination platter for Jamie so he could try a bit of everything. As an afterthought, Graham also added an artichoke and cheese dip with tortilla chips appetizer that he knew was good.

Sitting back after ordering, Graham noticed that some of the people in the restaurant were watching them and whispering to each other. At first Graham was uncertain about the reason behind it, but then noticing the direction of their interest he took another look at Jamie. Cleaned up Jamie looked quite good aside from the bruises on his face, but even after being washed his clothes were pretty much beyond salvation. Graham decided that he would have to do something about that before he returned home with Jamie after dinner.

"After dinner I need to do a bit of shopping," began Graham. "Would you like to come along with me while I take care of it?"

"Sure, I don't mind," replied Jamie.

"Great," said Graham. "It won't take too long and then we can go back to my place."

While they sat there and Jamie looked about the restaurant with obvious anticipation Graham considered Jamie's predicament. Sitting before him was a clearly intelligent, decent, and thoroughly normal boy. How could his parents have hurt him like they had, abused him so severely, and finally forced him into deciding that escaping to life on the streets was the only viable option left in order to survive? The idea that the streets could ever be a preferable place to live was something completely out of Graham's life experiences. Still, Graham considered, perhaps it was time to expand his horizons if he was going to try and help Jamie.

Graham was stirred out of his introspection by the arrival of the appetizer. Arrayed around a central cup of warm artichoke and cheese dip were layers of tortilla chips in multiple colours. The various chips were each made from a different variety of corn and the white, yellow, red, and blue chips made for a very attractive display.

"So, are you hungry?" Graham asked Jamie with a smile.

"I'm always hungry," replied Jamie with a shy grin.

"You'd better dig in then or I might just eat it all," said Graham, as he took a chip and scooped a bit of the dip onto it and then popped it into his mouth.

"Hey this is good!" exclaimed Jamie as he tentatively tried his first chip with some of the dip.

Graham smiled broadly and noted that after the initial cautious tasting of the dip, Jamie now dug in with determined vigour. Graham got in several good turns at the chips and dip and then sat back and let Jamie have most of it. Graham watched happily while chip after chip made the journey from plate to dip and then finally into Jamie's mouth. Much to his surprise Graham found himself enjoying this meal far more than the others he had recently.

"Do you have any interests Jamie? Things you used to like doing before you had to go out on your own?" asked Graham.

Jamie paused and reflected a bit before replying, "A long time ago my uncle took me fishing once. We went to this big lake up north that was full of fish."

"What kind of fish did you catch?" asked Graham.

"I caught three trout," said Jamie with obvious pride.

"Say that's pretty good. I've tried fishing a few times but I'm not that good at it," said Graham.

"My uncle was the best," said Jamie but with a touch of sadness. "I miss him a lot."

"Did something happen to him?" asked Graham gently.

"Just before last Christmas he got killed in a car accident," said Jamie sadly. "He was really nice and never tried to hurt me. I always hoped that maybe I could somehow go and stay with him one day, but after he was gone I knew it was hopeless. That's when I finally decided that I had to run away on my own. I waited until the end of February, though, so the weather wouldn't be so cold."

Further details were interrupted by the arrival of a busboy who removed the well-polished appetizer plate that was sitting in the middle of the table. While the busboy tidied up the table, a startled Jamie almost leapt out of his chair as a waiter coming up from behind put his arms around Jamie to tie a bib around his neck. Jamie settled back into his seat though when he saw another waiter doing the same thing to Graham. Just coming into view Jamie spotted yet another waiter coming in their direction, while carefully balancing two large plates of food on his arms.

As the main course was being laid out on the table, Graham saw Jamie's face brighten and smiled. Finger bowls, filled with water and a lemon wedge, were placed next to each of them. An empty bone bucket was placed in the centre of the table, and a stack of serviettes was added before the waiters departed. Jamie had a look of desperation about him and Graham could sense the youngster's conflict between decorum and the desire to attack the food now sitting in front of him.

"Let's see how this tastes," suggested Graham, and Jamie did with gusto.

Despite having ordered the large-sized platter for Jamie, Graham began to wonder if it was sufficient as he observed the speed with which Jamie ate and the ribs that were being polished clean. At the very least, Graham considered with amusement, it might be a good idea to keep a good hold onto his own plate.

Approximately halfway through the ribs, salad, and curly french fries, a slightly sauce-speckled Jamie paused for a moment, looked up at Graham, and smiled.

"This is wonderful," Jamie said in between mouthfuls.

"I'm glad you like it," replied Graham, while dropping a polished bone of his own into the bucket in the middle of the table.

"Do I ever!" said Jamie, with obvious delight.

Graham smiled back at Jamie and nodded. The food here, which had always been very good, seemed even better tonight, thought Graham. It was unlikely the cooking had changed and Graham wondered to himself if it might be the addition of Jamie and his enthusiasm that was making the difference.

Before too long, the bottoms of the plates began to become visible and eventually shone, particularly so in Jamie's case where not a trace of sauce remained on the plate. Graham was not quite as diligent and there were some hints of colour still remaining here and there. Graham looked over to the other side of the table at an obviously happy, albeit somewhat sauce-stained, Jamie. Jamie looked back with a big smile as he licked his fingers and then wiped his face with a serviette. Having run out of soda pop Jamie, who was still thirsty, reached for his finger bowl and took a drink. Graham smiled inwardly as he remembered the old tale of Queen Victoria under similar circumstances. Graham decided that if she could do it then it certainly was not beneath him, whereupon, he picked up his own finger bowl and took a sip out of it.

"I think I probably don't need to ask this question," joked Graham, "but how did you like it?"

"That was incredible," replied Jamie. "I've never had anything that good before."

"Then we'll have to make sure we do this again one day," said Graham, with a smile.

Graham waved at a passing waiter and passed his credit card to him. A couple of minutes later after signing the receipt that the waiter brought back to him, Graham nodded to Jamie and they got up. After slipping on their coats, Jamie picked up his backpack, and they went back out to the car.

Once they were inside the car Graham started it up and they drove back out onto the road. In addition to talking to Jamie during the meal as he occasionally came up for air, Graham had been doing some thinking. Graham had decided that the first order of business was going to be doing something about getting Jamie some replacements for his clothes before they went back home, but there was something more on Graham's mind. He was not certain, but it felt like he might be getting closer to discovering the solution to his dilemma regarding work versus retirement. If he could just bring it into focus and figure out what it was.

Jamie too was absorbed with his thoughts and was silent as they drove along. Dinner had been absolutely wonderful and strange all at the same time. Of course there was the meal itself - delicious and so very filling. Graham had ordered so many things for him. Jamie sensed that Graham probably was not the type to have ordered so much food normally and he was grateful for that. He had also seen how much it had cost when Graham paid the bill. At the same time, he had on rare occasions gotten lucky like this in the past, finding a man who would treat him to a good meal. However, such meals were normally accompanied by constant suggestive jokes about what would come later. There had been none of that tonight, not even a trace.

Graham turned off the main road and pulled the car into the underground parking lot of the North Road Mall. Graham normally like to avoid shopping malls in December, crowds were not something that he enjoyed very much. Still it was early in December and also being a Thursday night the crowds were not getting too bad yet.

Getting out of the car Graham said, "There's only one store that we need to go into, so this should be fairly easy. I hope that's OK with you?"

"No, I don't mind at all," replied Jamie shouldering his backpack once again.

"That's great. We should be out of here in less than an hour," said Graham somewhat cryptically.

While they were heading towards the escalators that would take them from the parking level up to the mall itself Jamie suddenly realized that it was the same mall where he had met Graham. Jamie also remembered the run-in with the security guard after Graham had left and started to get nervous.

Stepping off the escalator and onto the main floor of the mall Graham noticed that Jamie was almost clinging to him. At the same time, Graham saw Jamie's head moving back and forth as if scanning for someone in the crowd. From the combination of the two Graham knew that Jamie was worried about something, but he was not sure what it was.

Graham was about to ask when the answer suddenly supplied itself in the form of a booming voice that shouted out, "You there! Stop! What are you doing in here again?"

Feeling Jamie suddenly grabbing hold of him tightly, Graham turned towards the source of the voice. Graham saw a tall burly man in a uniform coming towards them at a run. Jamie jumped behind Graham and continued to cling to him for protection even though they had only met just that afternoon.

"Please, please, don't let him take me," whimpered Jamie.

Graham's hair stood up on the back of his neck as the guard approached, but he stood his ground and found himself saying to Jamie, "Don't worry. I said that no one would ever touch or hurt you again and I'm not going back on that promise now."

"What are you doing in here again? Why are you bothering this man?" bellowed the guard at Jamie who was now quivering while trying to hide behind Graham.

"And just who might you be?" demanded Graham in a calm voice that was nevertheless loud enough to attract the attention of passing shoppers.

"Mall Security, sir. This ... boy ... has been causing problems and I won't have him in here bothering decent people," replied the guard.

Graham heard the dramatic emphasis being placed on the job title by the guard, but at the same time noted the honorific form of address and analyzed the situation rapidly. Graham, while knowing he was no physical match for the man, was no longer worried. He knew this type all too well from his business career - self-important, oversized ego, and probably in a position at least two levels beyond his abilities. The guard outweighed Graham by at least sixty pounds and was at least a foot taller, and yet Graham smiled.

"This boy? Bothering me?" inquired Graham, with innocent sounding politeness.

"Yes. He's been causing problems here and I won't tolerate ..." the guard began.

"You? You, won't tolerate?" interrupted Graham suddenly, with a slightly menacing tone while staring directly at the guard.

"What I mean is ..." the guard began again.

"Yes indeed. Do tell me what you mean. My son and I would love to know what you mean," continued Graham, making a point to emphasize a relationship between himself and Jamie.

"Your son?" asked the now thoroughly confused guard. Hearing the relationship claim Jamie looked up at Graham with an astonished look on his face that quickly turned into a smile.

The guard took a single step backward and at that moment Graham knew that he had him. Graham took a matching step forward towards the guard with Jamie still clinging to him, but now looking up at him with a surprised and admiring look on his face.

"It looks to me like you are engaged in the harassment of two legitimate customers," said Graham in legal sounding tones.

Digging into his memory urgently for the name of the managing director of the mall complex, Graham continued, "I believe Mr. Saunders would be very interested in how his employees are treating the general public, don't you?"

Seeing the look of surprise appear in the guard's face, Graham was thankful that his company handled the computer services contract for the mall. Saunders was a stuffed shirt, in Graham's personal opinion, and had been a royal pain while NCS had been negotiating the agreement with the mall's management company. If Saunders was known for one quality above all others, it was his lightning quick temper.

Graham then pushed his advantage even further by pulling out his mobile telephone and began dialling as he spoke, "Yes. Let's just see what Bob has to say about how you treat a father and his son on their night out together to do some Christmas shopping shall we?"

That was the final blow for the guard. Believing that this short little man in the overcoat knew the director well enough to call him by his first name and even had his telephone number completely shattered the guard's self-confidence.

"I ... I'm terribly sorry sir. I must have been mistaken ... I mean, I think it was another boy ..." stammered the guard, now fearful for his job.

"Yes, I think we both know what you mean," pressed Graham with force.

"Really sir, I'm terribly sorry," pleaded the guard, backing away. "I hope that it won't be necessary for you to have to ...."

"Yes, I certainly hope that when I meet Bob at our breakfast meeting tomorrow that I will have forgotten this unfortunate incident," said Graham darkly.

Then pressing home the dagger with a twist Graham added, "Oh, and should my son ever mention to me in the future that you or any of your cohorts have bothered him again ... I will suddenly remember tonight very clearly."

The guard took off almost at a run and as he disappeared into the crowd Graham breathed a big sigh of relief and then began to chuckle.

Jamie had released Graham when he saw that the guard was being demolished by Graham, but now hugged him tight. Graham began to feel a little like he was about to become the main course of a boa constrictor, but at the same time felt warmed by Jamie's heartfelt hug.

"Oh wow. Thank you, thank you!" Jamie said, while continuing to hug Graham.

"I told you that I'd look after you and that no one would hurt you," replied Graham with a big smile.

"But he was so much bigger than you. How did you know he wouldn't go after you?" asked Jamie with wonderment.

"After you've been in as many business meetings as I have been, Jamie, you start to learn how to size people up. The key is to do or say something to see if you can throw them a little bit off balance and then watch how they react to that. You look to see if they back off and retreat at all or instead if they come right back at you. If they back off even just a little that's the signal you watch for. Once you see them crack that first little bit, then you know you have the advantage and you can move over to the attack. You never push too far or too fast, but once you are on a roll you just keep going and don't give them a chance to think too much. If you do it right, you can end up with them eating out of your hands. You and I both know in a physical fight he'd make mincemeat out of me, but the best way to fight is always using this," said Graham while tapping the side of his head.

"But weren't you afraid of him?" asked Jamie. "He's so big."

"Oh, of course I was," replied Graham. "But I just made sure that he didn't know it."

Graham paused a moment to take several deep breaths and Jamie then knew that Graham was telling the truth about being worried during the confrontation even if he had totally hidden the fact from the guard.

"You really know his boss?" asked Jamie while grinning.

"The company I work for handles the computers for the mall and I saw him once at a meeting from the far side of the room," said Graham. "You never saw anyone complain like he did. Fortunately my boss was the one that had to deal with him. At the meeting, I just sat quietly for the most part."

"So you don't really know him then?" continued Jamie.

"I doubt he'd even remember me and I certainly don't know his telephone number," laughed Graham. "That was a pure acting job on my part."

Jamie giggled and said, "He thought you were going to get him fired I bet."

"In a case like this, a convincing story often works wonders," said Graham with a broad smile. "Shall we get back to doing what we came here for now?"

Jamie nodded and they resumed their journey through the mall. From time to time as they went along Jamie looked at Graham with a new expression on his face. Jamie had never before seen anyone deal with someone like the security guard without using violence or at least the threat of it. Jamie knew just from Graham's size that the guard, or anyone else for that matter, could have polished off Graham in seconds and yet this short unassuming man had made a guard bulging with muscles back down in fear without ever raising his voice. There was definitely more to Graham than was apparent at first glance.

The fact that Graham had claimed him as his son during the confrontation also struck Jamie. None of the other men that Jamie had been with before had ever been willing to do that. At best, if questioned, they had explained him away as the child of a neighbour that they were helping out or as a distant relation of some sort. None of them had ever been willing to profess anything resembling close kinship.

As they walked along through the mall, Jamie suddenly jumped over to the side and bent down to pick something up. Graham could not see what it was that Jamie had found, but he could see a big smile on Jamie's face over the discovery.

"What did you find?" asked Graham.

"I found a penny," said Jamie proudly, while quickly sticking the coin into his pocket. "Once I even found a whole dollar and was able to get something to eat."

It hurt Graham to hear how Jamie's life could turn on something as small as finding change on the ground. The reduction of life to such fundamental terms was something that Graham had never had to understand before and it brought into focus for him the slender thread by which Jamie clung to daily existence.

After a couple of minutes, they came to the entrance of a large department store that was attached to the mall and entered. Jamie followed Graham as he went up to the second floor on the escalator and shortly discovered himself standing beside Graham in the boy's department looking at a rack of underwear in various sizes.

When Jamie realized what Graham was up to, the cold feeling in the pit of his stomach that he knew all too well instantly came back to him. Of course it all made sense now. Graham wanted to dress him up right so he would look more attractive to him. Jamie would not deny that Graham had treated him very well so far, fed him, and even protected him, so in Jamie's view Graham had more than earned the right. On top of everything else, he was going to get the added extra bonus of some underwear to replace his old worn out pair. Jamie looked at the balance sheet and accepted the inevitable with quiet calm.

"What size are you?" inquired Graham, completely unaware of Jamie's accountant-like analysis of the situation as he looked over the various colours and styles of boy's shorts and briefs with some embarrassment.

Knowing the role he was supposed to play Jamie turned his back towards Graham and peeled the back of his pants down a little bit revealing his cartoon-character embossed underwear and said, "What does the label say?"

Graham, taken completely by surprise, was overcome by a fit of coughing. It was not just the unexpected visuals but Jamie had added a distinct wiggle while providing Graham with the impromptu display.

When Graham caught his breath, he quickly pointed towards the first package of briefs that his eyes spotted and managed to say, "How about these?"

Jamie still could not quite figure out Graham. He knew what was expected of him, but each time he tried to play his part Graham either did not respond or as now was completely caught off-guard. Smiling at Graham's discomfort, Jamie pointed instead at a camouflage-patterned package that was the correct size and countered, "How about these instead?"

Happy to put the question of underwear in the past, Graham nodded quickly and picked up the indicated package, while at the same time quietly hoping that Jamie was not planning on an encore performance. Moving along towards the undershirts Graham looked at the size on the underwear in his hand and selected a package in the same pattern and size from the rack. Graham knew that Jamie also needed socks and the running shoes that he had were in very poor condition as well.

"Do you know your shoe size?" asked Graham.

"No, not really," replied Jamie. "Why?"

Jamie understood why Graham wanted new underwear for him, it was important to look nice for later. However Jamie could not make any sense out of why Graham was asking him about shoe sizes. Shoes were not needed for what would come later in the evening.

Looking up, Jamie saw Graham motioning to one of the store clerks who eventually came over.

"Can you tell me what shoe size we need please?" Graham asked the clerk.

"This will only take a moment," said the lady as she knelt down to measure Jamie's foot while motioning for him to take a seat.

Jamie removed his left shoe and placed his foot on the measuring stick that the clerk has brought. Jamie flinched as the clerk reached down and adjusted the slider to determine the measurement and she could not help noticing the general condition of Jamie's old running shoes, his socks, and his pants. The clerk did not say anything, but Graham noticed the turn in her face as she worked.

"It looks like you're a size six," announced the clerk as she looked up.

Turning to look at the huge display of running shoes that covered one full wall of the store, Graham felt at a complete loss. He had absolutely no idea what was practical, let alone what looked decent by current fashion standards. Feeling at a loss against the inescapable forces of marketing, Graham pointed vaguely towards the left side of the display where some of the more subdued pairs of shoes were located.

"What about something like those?" suggested Graham hopefully.

Jamie looked towards where Graham was pointing and tried to conceal a bit of a groan. Graham might be trying to be a nice guy, but he definitely needed to learn something about what was in style.

Jamie looked at the clerk and the clerk looked at Jamie and they both grinned. The clerk, having more experience with current trends, was in instant unspoken communication with Jamie and rescued the situation.

"How about a pair like these instead," suggested the clerk, as she walked over and picked up a pair of running shoes that were currently on sale from a display counter.

Graham looked on unconvinced at the rather brightly coloured shoes being held up. However, one glance at Jamie's hopeful face settled the matter. Graham nodded affirmatively to the clerk knowing as he did that his own ideas of what constituted fashion were rather out of date as well as generally being limited to ensuring that he was dressed warmly.

When the clerk left to find a pair in the correct size, Jamie was trying hard not to show his excitement too much. New shoes! Jamie had heard talk of boys who had gotten lucky and found a man with money and the desire to spend it on a boy. Maybe this time he had hit the jackpot and found one of these men by pure chance, although Graham's car and basement apartment somewhat argued against that prospect. Still, things were turning out well so far. Jamie considered the possibility that maybe Graham might want to keep him at least for a little while. That would help a lot with the winter temperatures going down to freezing at night now. Jamie decided that he had better turn up the intensity a notch or two to let Graham know he was agreeable to his part of the bargain.

The clerk returned and Jamie sat down to try the new shoes on. After taking off his right shoe as well and putting on the new ones, Jamie ran to stand in front of a mirror to check out how they looked on him. Moving to and fro in front of the mirror admiring the new running shoes, Jamie's beaming face let Graham know in no uncertain terms that these were the right choice.

Noting the clerk's strange looks at them and feeling somewhat uncomfortable with her scrutiny Graham tried to deflect her attention.

"We'll take the shoes, but first we need to look at a couple more things," he said.

"Would you like him to wear them or should I put them back into the box?" asked the clerk.

"It looks like he wants to wear them," replied Graham with a happy smile, as he watched Jamie still admiring himself in the mirror, his worries momentarily forgotten.

Still feeling under observation by the clerk Graham added by way of explanation, "My wife's been neglecting our son while I've been away and I'm trying to rectify that."

The clerk nodded and smiled, although it was very obvious to her that Jamie was suffering from more than just simple neglect. One saw many things working in a department store and she had long since stopped trying to make sense out of what people did to each other or why.

While Graham was talking to the clerk Jamie had come up to stand next to him and hearing what he had said looked at him with a surprised expression. This was the second time tonight that Graham had covered up for Jamie by speaking of him as his son. It felt strange to Jamie for this man that he had only just met to refer to him in that way, but it felt good at the same time. Jamie could not even remember the last time that his own parents had talked about him as being anything other than a nuisance or a waste of time and money.

"OK, I think we need some socks to go with those new shoes of yours," Graham said to Jamie.

The clerk following Jamie's gaze took down a large package of ankle socks and Graham nodded saying, "You'd better make that two of those."

"We also need to get some new pants as well," continued Graham. "Could you check on his size so we can pick something out?"

The clerk walked away to find a measuring tape whereupon Jamie nudged Graham and with a flirty grin and an exaggerated look of innocence quietly asked, "What's the matter? Afraid to check the size yourself?"

Once again Graham was convulsed with a spasm of coughing. Jamie giggled at Graham's discomfort, however, Graham was saved from having to reply by the clerk's return.

The clerk busied herself with the tape measure and shortly announced, "Your waist is twenty-three inches".

"Let's get two pairs," said Graham. Then turning to Jamie he added, "You go with the lady and find some that you like."

Jamie followed the clerk excitedly and shortly was running to a change room to try on the new camouflage-pattern jeans he had picked out. While Jamie was busy Graham inquired about shirts and after the clerk pointed out a couple of possibilities in warm flannel, Graham asked her to drop them off with Jamie in the dressing room.

A few minutes later Jamie emerged from the change room, his backpack dangling from one hand. Graham was taken aback when he saw the complete transformation. The formerly scruffy-looking street boy now looked positively spectacular. The smile on Jamie's face was as bright as day and Graham basked in the glow that shone from Jamie's eyes. It still did not fix the fundamental problems of Jamie's life, but at least now he could walk along and not be starred at and commented on by people.

"I see you like camouflage a lot," commented Graham seeing the style of jeans and shirts that Jamie had chosen.

"I like to be invisible, it's safer that way," said Jamie rather reservedly compared with his earlier exuberance, and Graham nodded realizing that there was significance behind Jamie's statement.

"We'll take the lot," Graham then said to the clerk, while handing over his credit card.

"Thank you, sir. I'll ring this up right away," she replied, while walking over to the cash register.

Jamie ran over to Graham and threw his arms around him, "You didn't need to do all this you know."

"I know, but I wanted to do something nice for you," said Graham, lightly returning the unexpected hug.

"I'd have let you have me without you doing all this," said Jamie with frank sincerity.

"Jamie, I know it's probably something you're not used to," began Graham. "I want you to know that I'm not doing this in expectation of anything from you. There's no catch and nothing that I'm wanting from you in return. You just needed help and so I'm helping you."

"No one does anything for free," Jamie stated simply.

"That might be how other people have treated you in the past," said Graham. "But that's not how I operate."

"OK," said a not entirely convinced Jamie.

Seeing the clerk returning Graham added, "Now you'd better change back into your old things so we can buy everything and then go back home."

While Graham checked the total and then signed the slip Jamie ran back into the change room returning a couple of minutes later in his old clothes. As Jamie passed the new clothes to the clerk to be put into the bag Graham noticed that they had been carefully folded. The clerk then placed them in the bottom of a large shopping bag along with the underwear, socks, and the running shoes box that now contained Jamie's old shoes.

The clerk pushed the now filled shopping bag over to Jamie who, wearing his backpack and now struggling to carry the large bag, appeared to be completely overloaded. Graham was about to offer to help, but then seeing the enormous smile on Jamie's face he decided that it would be better not to interfere with Jamie's enjoyment in carrying away his new things.

When they got back down to the parking lot, Graham unlocked the car and they both climbed in. Graham started up the car and navigated his way out of the underground parking maze and back onto the street to return to his apartment. Graham looked over at Jamie who was sitting quietly with his arms tightly wrapped around the oversized shopping bag that held his new clothes. Jamie's smile had not abated one iota since they had left the mall and the light from the streetlamps reflected off his white teeth as they drove along. Graham thought to himself for a moment with a grin that it might be possible to drive by the reflected glow coming from Jamie's happy face, but decided against giving the theory a try.

Jamie turned towards Graham and said, "This is really great of you getting me all these things."

"I could see that your clothes were starting to get a tiny bit rough around the edges," replied Graham. "So I thought it would be nice if you could have something new to wear."

"It's kind of hard to keep things clean and in good shape out there," said Jamie. "I don't have money to spend on stuff like that."

"I expect that it's rough out there just in general," offered Graham.

"You don't know the half of it," responded Jamie. "Especially now with the weather getting so cold."

"Would you like to stay for the night?" asked Graham. "The sofa in my place pulls out into a bed and you can sleep there."

Here it comes finally thought Jamie. Graham's claims of no payment needed were just stories after all. Nevertheless with only a momentary hesitation Jamie replied cheerfully, "Sure, I'd like that a lot."

Graham was not entirely sure that he should completely believe Jamie's last statement, but he did not say anything. Now was not the time. Graham was beginning to feel certain however that Jamie's flirting back in the store was because Jamie felt that he had to in order to be able to stay.

Keeping his concerns to himself Graham turned into the driveway next to the house his basement apartment was located in and shut off the car's engine. They got out and walked down the sidewalk alongside the house with Jamie clutching the shopping back tightly like he might lose it at any moment. When they reached the door, Graham unlocked it and let them both inside.

Once they had their coats and shoes off Graham suggested, "Let's take another peek at how your new things look."

"Can I?" said Jamie excitedly.

"Of course you can. They're yours. You can do anything you want," replied Graham.

Jamie paused for a second, looked at Graham, and then began to reach for the bottom of his shirt to pull it off. Seeing this Graham said, "You should probably take everything into the bathroom to change."

"Oh. OK," said Jamie still not understanding Graham's reluctance as he took the bag of clothes with him and went into the bathroom.

A couple of minutes later the door opened and Jamie once again looked absolutely smashing. After taking a moment to admire the new outfit Graham decided that Jamie definitely had a much better sense of style than he did. Between getting cleaned up and now the new clothes the results were clearly worth every penny. Graham reminded himself that tidying up the outside was the easy part. Torn clothes were replaceable and bruises would heal, but only provided that the root causes of the underlying problems were dealt with and eliminated. That part would not be so easy nor as quick. Especially now that he knew from Jamie that the government agencies devoted to such things were often as not part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

After a few more moments of admiration Graham finally declared to Jamie, "You look spectacular. Did you know that?"

Jamie blushed and stammered and looked down at his feet saying, "No one ever told me that before."

Graham felt bad for having embarrassed Jamie and said, "Perhaps I shouldn't have said spectacular but you're definitely handsome."

"Thanks a lot for these, Graham. I've never had anything as nice as this before. Even at home if I got something to wear it was only stuff from the thrift shop," said Jamie.

Now it was Graham's turn to be embarrassed. He was only doing the decent thing. The thing that Jamie's parents should have been doing for him instead of what they had been. It was not something he should be thanked for.

Graham covered up his discomfort by changing the subject, "I've got a lot of work to do for the office tonight. Would you like to watch some TV or would you like to get some sleep?"

"Going to bed would be nice," suggested Jamie, with a smile that promised thanks of a less verbal variety.

Graham noticed, but purposely ignored the hint coming from Jamie. He cleaned things off from the sofa, removed the cushions, and shortly was showing Jamie the bed that pulled out from inside it.

"I admit it's nothing special, but I only stay here Monday to Thursday," said Graham.

Jamie nodded, but did not comment on Graham's rather spartan accommodations. An old car, a small basement apartment, and now a sofa bed; luxurious it was not, but it was clean and warm and that was all that really mattered to Jamie. Nevertheless, the image presented by the accommodations did not quite square with that of a man who less than an hour ago had paid a couple of hundred dollars to buy him new clothes without even blinking. In Jamie's mind Graham was a mass of unresolved contradictions.

It suddenly occurred to Graham that Jamie did not have anything to sleep in. He thought for a moment and then said, "I don't have any pyjama's to offer you to sleep in but perhaps that T-shirt I gave you earlier this evening would be OK?"

The question seemed rather pointless in Jamie's opinion. He knew full well what was going to be expected of him, but replied, "Sure. Anything at all is just fine."

"OK. So why don't you brush your teeth and change then you can climb into bed," said Graham, while nodding towards the bathroom.

"I don't have a toothbrush," said an embarrassed Jamie.

Once again Graham was struck by the lack in Jamie's life of what seemed like basic essential items and quickly said, "Look in the drawer next to the sink and you'll find some new ones. Just take one of those."

Jamie went into the bathroom, washed up, and finally came out wearing the T-shirt that Graham had given him earlier. Graham once again noticed that Jamie was carrying in his arms the new clothes and that they were folded with care. They were sitting on top of Jamie's old clothes that had also been folded, both sets sitting on top of Jamie's outstretched arms. Jamie came over and stood next to Graham. Looking about for a moment Jamie then moved the now empty shopping bag to a spot next to the sofa with his foot and then placed the stack of clothes on top of the bag on the floor. All the while Jamie continued to hold onto his backpack which dangled from one hand, it was clear that nothing would separate him from it.

Graham pulled the blankets and top sheet back on one side of the bed and held them for Jamie to get into the bed. Jamie put his backpack down right next to the bed and then climbed in. After Jamie got into bed, Graham pulled the covers back over him and turned off most of the lights in order to make the room darker. Leaving only a small light on over the kitchen table, Graham came back and stood looking down at Jamie.

"Will you be OK now if I do a bit of work on the table over there? Will the light bother you?" Graham asked.

"You're not coming to bed now?" asked Jamie, moving slightly sideways in the bed clearly suggesting he was making room for Graham.

"No, I've got lots of work to do and tomorrow is going to be a busy day," replied Graham.

"Alright then, I'll be fine. The light won't bother me," said Jamie.

"Great. You sleep well and get a good rest for a change," said Graham kindly.

Jamie smiled at Graham and visibly relaxed as it appeared that nothing was going to take place tonight.

"No one will hurt you here Jamie. You're going to be perfectly safe. Good night," Graham quietly added, and then walked towards the table on the other side of the room.

Jamie rolled onto his right side so he could watch what Graham was doing. Still unable to quite believe that Graham was not going to try something, Jamie watched as Graham pulled out his briefcase, removed some papers, and a laptop computer. Graham plugged the computer's power cord into the wall socket, sat down, turned it on, and shortly began to type away while reading and shuffling through his papers.

After watching Graham for a while, despite being tired, Jamie was finally convinced that Graham was going to leave him alone, at least for tonight. Jamie rolled over in the opposite direction and yawned. Closing his eyes, Jamie began to think about the day's strange course of events. Sighing at the luxury of having a soft warm place to sleep he pondered the mystery that was Graham. Jamie was exhausted however and having a real bed to sleep in for the first time in a couple of months he soon fell asleep to the sound of tapping computer keys.

Talk about this story on our forum
Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily. Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. If the email address pastes with %40 in the middle, replace that with an @ sign.]