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|Subject: Silent Night by Marcia Muller Page 4 of 6 Wed Jun 10, 2009 11:19 am
The "greasy spoon" was called The Coffee Break. It was small--just five tables and a lunch counter, old green linoleum floors, Formica and molded plastic furniture. A slender man with thinning gray hair sat behind the counter smoking a cigarette. A couple of old women were hunched over coffee at a corner table. Next to the window was a dirty-haired blond girl; she was staring through the glass with blank eyes--another of the city's casualties.
I showed Mike's picture to the man behind the counter. He told me Mike looked familiar, thought a minute, then snapped his fingers and said, "Hey, Angie."
The girl by the window turned. Full-face, I could see she was red-eyed and tear-streaked. The blankness of her gaze was due to misery, not drugs.
"Take a look at the picture this lady has. Didn't I see you with this kid yesterday?"
She got up and came to the counter, self-consciously smoothing her wrinkled jacket and jeans. "Yeah," she said after glancing at it, That's Michael."
"Where's he now? The lady's his aunt, wants to help him."
She shook her head. "I don't know. He was at the Vinton, but he got kicked out the same time I did. We stayed down at the cellar in the vacant lot last night, but it was cold and scary. These drunks kept bothering us. Mr. Ahmeni, how long do you think it's going to take my dad to get here?"
"Take it easy. It's a long drive from Oroville. I only called him an hour ago." To me, Mr. Ahmeni added, "Angie's going home for Christmas."
I studied her. Under all that grime, a pretty, conventional girl hid. I said, "Would you like a cup of coffee? Something to eat?"
"I wouldn't mind a Coke. I've been sponging off Mr. Ahmeni for hours." She smiled faintly. "I guess he'd appreciate it if I sponged off somebody else for a change."
I bought us both Cokes and sat down with her. "When did you meet Mike?"
"Three days ago, I guess. He was at the hotel when I got into town. He kind of looked out for me. I was glad; that place is pretty awful. A lot of addicts stay there. One OD'd in the stairwell the first night. But it's cheap and they don't ask questions. A guy I met on the bus coming down here told me about it."
"What did Mike do here in the city, do you know?"
"Wandered around, mostly. One afternoon we went out to Ocean Beach and walked on the dunes."
"What about drugs or--"
"Michael's not into drugs. We drank some wine, is all. He's... I don't know how to describe it, but he's not like a lot of the kids on the streets."
"Well, he's kind of... sensitive, deep."
"This sensitive soul ran away from home because his parents wouldn't buy him a moped for Christmas."
Angie sighed. "You really don't know anything about him, do you? You don't even know he wants to he called Michael, not Mike."
That silenced me for a moment. It was true: I really didn't know my nephew, not as a person. "Tell me about him."
"What do vou want to know?"
"Well, this business with the moped--what was that all about?"
"It didn't really have anything to do with the moped. At least, not much. It had to do with the kids at school."
"In what way?"
"Well, the way Michael told it, his family used to be kind of poor. At least there were some months when they worried about being able to pay the rent."
"And then his father became a singing star and they moved to this awesome house in Pacific Palisades, and all of a sudden Michael was in school with all these rich kids. But he didn't fit in. The kids, he said, were really into having things and doing drugs and partying. He couldn't relate to it. He says it's really hard to get into that kind of stuff when you've spent your life worrying about real things."
"Like if your parents are going to be able to pay the rent."
Angie nodded, her fringe of limp blond hair falling over her eyes. She brushed it back and went on. "I know about that; my folks don't have much money, and my mom's sick a lot. The kids, they sense you're different and they don't want to have anything to do with you. Michael was lonely at the new school, so he tried to fit in--tried too hard, I guess, by always having the latest stuff, the most expensive clothes. You know."
"And the moped was part of that."
"Uh-huh. But when his mom said he couldn't have it, he realized what he'd been doing. And he also realized that the moped wouldn't have done the trick anyway. Michael's smart enough to know that people don't fall all over you just because you've got another new toy. So he decided he'd never fit in, and he split. He says he feels more comfortable on the streets, because life here is real." She paused, eyes filling, and looked away at the window. "God, is it real."
I followed the direction of her gaze: beyond the plate glass a girl of perhaps thirteen stumbled by. Her body was emaciated, her face blank, her eyes dull--the look of a far-gone junkie.
I said to Angie, "When did you last see Mike... Michael?"
"Around four this afternoon. Like I said, we spent the night in that cellar in the vacant lot. After that I knew I couldn't hack it anymore, and I told him I'd decided to go home. He got pissed at me and took off."
Continue Christmas mystery short story
"Why do you think? I was abandoning him. I could go home, and he couldn't."