Paul walked the streets struggling to prevent himself from shuffling his feet on the pavement, his little brother Nicky was impressionable. If Paul did it, then it would be easy for Nicky to do it. Each one of them had a backpack and Paul had a plastic bag with last minute items he was able to gather.
“Where are we going,” Nicky asked, swaying left and right. “Hey, Paul! Where are we going?”
“Just,” Paul paused on his sentence, “keep walking. Okay?”
“Ugh… I’m so tired. Can we take a break?”
“We only walked three blocks.”
“That’s cause you have bigger legs than me,” Nicky reasoned. “Paul continued his pace before Nicky’s head rolled back. “My feet hurt.”
“Can you stop complaining? Please?”
“But how much longer,” Nicky bemoaned.
“If I told you, that wouldn’t make you stop whining,” Paul explained.
“I’m not whining,” Nicky answered. “You’re not answering me.”
“I don’t know how to answer you Nicky.”
“Where’s mom and dad?”
“Still on their trip.”
“Can we stop here?”
“No,” Paul answered calmly.
Nicky began crying softly, drawing the unwanted attention from strangers. Paul stopped by a nearby stoop and waited for his brother to catch up. Nicky rubbed his eyes dry as he sniffled.
“Are you done,” Paul asked. Nicky nodded as he sniffled and rubbed his eyes some more. “Are your feet okay,” Paul asked warmly.
“A little,” he whimpered.
“Can we continue walking?”
Paul let out a big sigh that he hid from his brother. He knew it would come to this. He pulled off his backpack and pulled out a neatly made bologna sandwich. Nothing special. Just bread and the two bologna slices in between. No condiments. No lettuce or tomatoes. This was an extremely special sandwich because it was the only and last sandwich he had.
Paul left their apartment with his little brother after he saw the news confirming his suspicions. A tragic accident claimed the lives of seven, including both of his parents. Paige and Noah Parker. Paul didn’t need words when he heard his neighbors crying in the hallway. Ms. Walker, knocked and knocked and wailed, but Paul didn’t answer while Nicky was asleep. It was only a couple of days until the electricity went out and the collection notices poured underneath the door.
Paul knew that he didn’t have any immediate family or friends to care for him and his brother and social services would guarantee a trip to the orphanage. It became Paul’s priority to stay with his brother.
With the electricity out, they had to preserve what little food they had, so he threw his perishables in a cooler with whatever ice cubes he could collect before they froze and devised a plan.
He would leave the city and go to the nearest farm where he could work and take care of his brother. He read about the closest farms near his city when he researched it for a school project. Getting to the countryside would be easy. Convincing his brother would be a challenge.
Paul thought about the different ways he could explain to his four year old brother, that their parents had died and there wasn’t a contingency plan laid out for them. Nicky was fine watching television until the power went out. It was important that he remained silent, to buy his time before he left. So, Paul devised an eternal game of ‘the floor is lava’ so Nicky could jump and play without making a sound on the floor.
While Nicky played. Paul prepared their backpacks, for their journey. He prepared one outfit for each of them to wear, one for the cold weather and the other for warm weather. He packed toothbrushes and toothpaste, two sticks of deodorant, a pair of sneakers for each, a calendar, their favorite books () underwear, whatever small snacks he could find, the expired bottle of chewy vitamins and an old smartphone that didn’t have a cellular plan.
Paul’s backpack was nearly full. HIs bothers was packed tight for it was smaller. He rushed over to the cooler and found it was filled with lukewarm water with smelly food. Paul sighed with dissatisfaction and scrambled to make one bologna sandwich the way his mother used to make it.
Paul collected himself as he packed the one meal he could prepare and was interrupted by a banging on the front door. The department of housing with the police department was outside and began a countdown. Ms. Walker began wailing nearby.
Nicky walked into the room, wide eyed but quiet and Paul signaled for him to rush to him quietly.
Do you want to play a game, Paul whispered. Nicky nodded. He picked Nicky up and rushed into the dark bedroom and said there were bad guys outside and they had to escape. Nicky accepted the idea and rushed into his warm clothes and Paul shoved the sandwich in his pack.
They tiptoed to the window and began to descend. Paul rushed back to grab a picture of their family. Nicky was cooperative and played the game the way his brother told him too, but his patience wore out when he became tired and hungry.
“This smells funny,” Nicky said.
“Come here, Paul said, grabbing his bother’s head playfully. “You sure it’s not you?” Paul smelled his brother’s hair. “I think it’s you,” Paul joked. Nicky ate big bites and stopped halfway through the bread.
“What’s wrong,” Paul asked with a frown. “Is it bad? Are you gonna be sick?”
“No,” Nicky replied. “Do you want some?” Nicky extended his arm and waited for Paul to take a bite.
Paul bowed his head. “Go ahead. Eat.”
“I want you to have some too,” Nicky insisted.
“I ate already,” Paul lied.
“You ate without me?” Nicky’s face was shocked.
“See? I knew you didn’t eat. Eat it.” Paul smiled and took the sandwich to eat. Are the bad guys still after us?”
Paul watched the street corners and saw assorted dangers to be mindful of: gangs, predators and truant officers. Nicky was only afraid of stray dogs.
“Yes, they are. We have to make it to the fortress,” Paul said, looking to the horizon.
“The fortress,” Nicky repeated in wonder.
“Yes, it’s a safe place from all the bad guys.”
“Are mom and dad gonna be there too,” Nicky asked expectantly.
Without missing a beat, Paul answered, “I think so. I downloaded a secret map to mom’s old phone. If we follow it, we should make it there safely.”
“Are there gonna be dogs,” Nicky said cowering into his shoulders.
“Maybe, but stay with me and you’ll be safe, okay?”
Paul looked over his shoulders and saw a group of men eyeing both him and Nicky. He stuck his hand in his bag and noticed a man pop off his perch against the wall across the street. He threw his lit cigarette on the ground never breaking eye contact with him.
“Nicky,” Paul warned without breaking eye contact with the stranger, “go across the street and wait for me there. Now.”
“But I can’t cross the street without you or an adult,” Nicky said, playing with a pebble on the ground.
Paul grabbed his collar to get his brother’s attention. “Do what I said. Now.” Nicky listened.
“Hey, little man,” the rugged man said forcefully with a smile on his face. “You got something for me? I know you got something for me.”
The man edged close to Paul and Paul closed his eyes, expecting to be struck.
“You think i’m gonna hit you,” the stranger asked.
Paul saw his brother made it across the street safely from the corner of his eye.
“Look,” Paul started, “I don’t have any money.”
“I know you got something for me,” the stranger repeated.
“I have a five year old phone. That’s it.”
“Good enough for me,” the man said. “Give it here.”
“Please, I’m trying to make it to my grandma’s house. I need it for directions.”
The man scoffed under breath before leaning close to him. “I’ll make you little red riding hood. Give me the damn phone.”
Paul reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone and the man grabbed it from him. “Now, get lost,” the man said as he slid the phone in his pocket.
Paul shoved his hands in his pocket and crossed the street to his brother. Luckily, Nicky was preoccupied with playing with a new pebble he found on the street to see what happened to his brother, Paul. Nicky could see his brother was upset.
“Can you hold my hand,” Nicky asked.
“No,” Paul shouted back. “Come on!”
Nicky jumped in his own skin as Paul moved along to the underground subway lines. Nicky wanted to comfort his brother, but Paul was stewing from his stolen phone. The hustle of the crowd intensified as the brothers descended into the subway system. Unknown to them, a man, hiding in the shadows, was following their every step.
Nicky wanted to grab hold of Paul’s hand, but he knew Paul wouldn’t want to, so Nicky stuck to him like glue, but a 4 year old doesn’t have the same ability to navigate a crowd. Nicky shuffled the bottom of the stair landing, but the closer he came to the subway, the more people appeared.
Paul spun around and called his brother name, but Nicky was no where to be found.
Paul’s heart started to race and he yelled for his brother. The subway doors began to beep. He screamed to be let off, but the doors closed and that’s when Paul saw Nicky on the other side, drenched in tears.
Paul waded to the doors as the conductor announced the next stop. Paul slammed the windows as Nicky’s tiny hands slapped the warm surface of the subway. The train kicked off while Paul was attempting to pry the door open.
“Wait here, Nicky! Wait here,” Paul yelled over and over again. But dread settled within him as the subway pulled off and an older man dressed in a black outfit approached slowly behind Nicky.
Paul felt like he would have a heart attack at that moment. The train picked up speed. Paul waded over to the end and screamed to stop the train. He yanked the emergency cord and the subway stopped before it could leave the station.
Paul ran down through the rear subway cars and fell onto the subway platform.
Nicky was gone.
Paul ran up and screamed Nicky’s name several times over.
He looked for his little frame. He looked for a man in a dark jacket. Strangers approached Paul, asking if they could help, but to take the time to explain was more time for that stranger to get away.
Paul skimmed the exits and leapt over the turnstile. Half wondered if he was making a mistake by leaving, but he decided to trust his intuition.
Outside, Paul leapt down the stairs of the middle of the subway station to get a clear vantage point. And several blocks down there was a tall man dressed in black that had crossed the street holding the hand of a child!
“Nicky,” Paul screamed with a hoarse whisper.
Paul streaked across the street, in an attempt to not lose sight of him, but as he rounded the corner, they were gone from sight.
Paul screamed Nicky’s name over and over until he found a black overcoat laying on the ground.
Paul held his head together with his hands. He could feel time slipping away. Paul scanned the crowd for the tallest men from where he stood as he continued screaming for his brother.
This kept up for three agonizing minutes until he bumped into a tall man wearing a wool sweater. He appeared agitated, but remained silent. Paul pulled a knife on him.
“Excuse me,” the man said.
“Where is my brother,” Paul threatened.
“What brother,” the man sneered.
Paul pushed the knife against him.
“I can’t wait to call the cops on you,” the man said, before Paul released him. The man dusted himself off and said, “piss off!”
Paul sped into an alley way and collapsed next to a dumpster as he continued to sob quietly. He lost his brother.
“Are you okay,” a tiny voice said on the opposite side of the dumpster. Paul looked up and rushed to the other side and saw Nicky sitting there whole and alive. Paul picked him up and squeezed him tight.
“I’m fine,” Paul said as he wept. “Are you?” Nicky nodded. “Who was that man? How did you get away?”
Nicky bowed his head. “He took off his jacket, and he had a dog tattoo. I don’t like dogs.”
Paul embraced his brother once more and whispered into his ear, “we’re not letting go of hand holding anymore. Okay?”
Nicky smiled. “Deal. I like to hold hands a lot.”