The ground on Elm Street was covered in a carpet of snow several inches thick. Traffic passed by at a snail's pace, barely inching along and congesting streets all over the city. The air was filled with noise- horns blaring, people shouting, motors running- that mingled with the stench of smog and cold.
He didn't mind. He had bigger things to worry about.
He sat against the wall of a shop, halfway between a narrow alley and the sidewalk proper. He glanced up at the electric clock positioned above the store across the street.
Normally a cop would have been by already, telling him to get off the street and to stop scaring people. Today, though, he supposed it was too cold for anyone to bother. There were only a few shoppers stupid enough to be out walking, and they were all too bundled up in their coats and absorbed in their cell phones to notice him.
He huddled up into himself, trying to conserve as much heat as possible.
His jacket was thin with use and age. It had once belonged to his father, and he'd had it for as long as he could remember. His shoes, too, were worn thin, as were his socks, shirt, and even his pants. If he'd had the time to think about it, he'd probably say everything about him was worn thin, himself included.
He looked up blearily at the clock.
He sighed and thought of the shelter.
He hated the shelter. He hated the condescending way the staff spoke the them- him and all the other unfortunates. They actually called them that, 'the unfortunates'. He hated the jaded looks some of the older volunteers had and the look of pity mingled with disgust in the newer ones. He hated the way they rustled everyone like cattle, stripping them of all dignity and humanity while coldly insinuating that this was Your Own Fault, and how, even as some of the people seeking help slowly starved to death, the pastor would insist on a several hour sermon before hand. He had no idea if all shelters were like that: maybe only the church run ones. Maybe only this one.
It didn't matter in the end. There was only one shelter within a twenty mile radius, and that was it.
Again he looked up at the clock.
As much as the idea had repelled him, he'd decided that morning that he'd have to go to the shelter. It was too cold out for him to be out by himself, and pride was only for people who could afford it. If it meant getting out of the snow, he'd take what they gave him and keep his mouth shut with all the others. Unfortunately, to get in at six in time for the dinner service, he'd have to show up at four and hope he was one of the lucky ones they let in.
It was amazing how long an hour could be when it was cold out.
His stomach growled. Gases and acidic liquids and all manner of off putting biological things he didn't want to think about started churning around his belly. He licked his lips and tried to think of something else.
A few people passed by. A woman in a thick faux fur coat chatted away on a cell phone, her white gloves blending in with the snowy scene behind her. Her other hand held a cup of something steaming.
Coffee, maybe. he thought. Or hot chocolate.
He smiled and shook his head. No, she looked like the chai tea sort.
Unpleasant gurgling started again. For a moment, he thought of how the cup must have felt out in this cold. Warm cardboard, the smell of something nice-
He gritted his teeth and looked at someone else, ignoring the phantom warmth in his right hand.
A little girl and her mother walked down the street, holding hands. The little girl's large, puffy hat matched her bright pink coat. Her mom wore an expensive looking green coat and ear muffs.
He smiled as the girl skipped along the cross walk and tried to fight down the twinge of jealousy. Inside his pockets, his hands curled into fists- not because he was mad, but because he wanted to see if he could still feel his fingers. He could really use some mittens.
The clock read 3:10 in firm, glowing characters.
He lightly thumped his head against the cement wall a few times. On the inside, he was writhing. The waiting, oh the waiting. it was like someone had grabbed something inside his chest -what? His heart? His soul? Maybe both- and had just twisted. Twisted and pulled it so it was stretched out, then crammed back inside his ribcage.
Yes, he thought vacantly. That was probably a good description.
After several more agonizing minutes of frost, hunger, and nothing, he curled up and wrapped his arms around his chest. His hands were painfully cold compared to the rest of him. All the same, he tucked them beneath his shirt and along side his arms. Once it was clear that that was a good as it was going to get, he lay down. Hopefully, he would wake up before four o clock rolled around.
He couldn't sleep. Every time he though he was just about to, every time the world began to fall away and his thoughts got a little more muddled, he would suddenly break out into fits of shivering. Not the light shakes he'd been having all day and had long since gotten used to, but deep, deep, shudders that started something in the center of his chest and belly and worked their way out. At each fit he had, he would shake so violently he'd wind up hitting his head or banging his arm painfully against the sidewalk.
He opened his eyes and dully stared at the road before him. He tried to think, but found he couldn't. Not properly, at any rate. It was like walking through thick sludge with no aim and no idea where you were going.
Across the street, an old man with a cane walked awkwardly through the packed snow. He had a hat. He had a long, brown coat that looked tantalizingly warm.
The young man watched through watering eyes as the old man came onto his side of the road, smiling as he made his way through the drift.
It's his leg, whispered a small voice in his head. It was the portion of his brain still capable of rational thought: a portion small and still shrinking.
The old man's leg is hurt.
Without quite thinking about what he was doing, the young man struggled to his feet. His legs had gone numb some time ago from both sitting down and sitting down in snow, but he managed to stand. He watched the old man feverishly with half focused eyes.
The old man passed by slowly, oblivious to his audience. When he was close enough, the young man staggered out and grabbed hold of his shoulders.
"Hey!" shouted the old man. The two toppled into the snow. "What the hell are you doing?"
The young man didn't answer. Instead, he grabbed the man's arm. Numb fingers struggled with the strap on the jacket's cuff. In the end, the button tore off allowing him to push up the sleeve, exposing bare flesh.
Smiling, he grabbed the man's wrist.
For a fraction of a second, he was thrown off by the warmth. He couldn't feel skin, or cloth, or anything else: just the shocking, beautiful warmth.
There was something he had to do . . . something . . .
He took a deep breath and tried to concentrate. There was a painful tingling sensation as the hand holding onto the wrist woke up. For a brief moment, there was a flash of searing heat coming from his palm.
He screamed. His eyes rolled back into his head. He collapsed.
The old man shoved him off and got to his feet. "What the hell?" he shouted, stomping off into the snow. "I'll- I'll call the police!"
From his position on the ground, he watched with a smile on his face as the older man stormed off. The limp was gone.
He thought vaguely about going back to his spot by the wall. It really seemed like too much effort. Especially since, for some bizarre reason, the snow over here was warmer than the snow by the wall.
He yawned. It really was warm.
He shook off his jacket and glanced up at the clock.
Someone giggled. It took him a moment to realize it had been him. Suddenly, things didn't seem to bad. What was the rush? Even the hunger had almost faded.
A half hour, he thought. That's enough time. He curled up, burrowing slightly into the snow and enjoying the warmth. Heavy eyelids closed and, despite his ragged breathing, he found himself quite comfortable.
Just a little nap. There was enough time.
He fell asleep.