The scent of pine pitch and wood smoke hangs in the chill. A smudge of darkness creeps across the horizon and swallows the last streak of sunlight, plunging the forest encampment into shadow. Low flames lick the rim of a rusty barrel set in a clearing amidst conifers and oaks. A few random sparks spit up and flare out in the moonless dusk.
A girlish squeal elevates the mood, and several deep chuckles follow. Laughter floats up into the gloom and sets a brighter tone, chasing away the frowns and sadness. A tough life sometimes for these vagrants, each one embracing an occasional bout of humor simply to survive.
One more burst of laughter spills out, another high-pitched shriek. "That's too funny, wait 'til you hear this one." Another tall tale bends the facts, spicing up tragedy. True, false, or embellished, story-telling becomes an art form less easily defined when homeless drifters share a patch of ground for a day or a week, sometimes a month or more.
As the chill deepens, each bundled body wraps itself tighter inside a ragged blanket or a dingy old coat. The travelers snuggle closer. A grunt or a groan disturbs the quiet as one or another scoots in toward the fire and crabs about the weather.
"Should a left a week ago." A male voice grumbles. A fabric rustle punctuates his words as he tosses a log into the barrel then slips away and wraps himself tighter. A loner and complainer, hiding near the perimeter but still slow to abandon his companions.
"Damn cold sneaks right inside these old bones, sets up a cramp." A different male voice, another fabric rustle. "Come on over here and warm me up, Annie."
A group giggle pops out. Everyone knows what's coming.
"Screw you, Gator. Git out the magnifier and use a rag." Annie giggles again. Same request every night, same response. Annie and Gator remain pals, but not lovers. An old boar hunter and alligator trapper from southern Georgia, Gator never bathes. The average nose can smell the man a mile away, even his fingernails reek.
Chicago's not the finest place in the country to sleep outdoors during winter, and most seasonal residents have long departed, seeking the southern warmth. A few hardy misfits hang around until the last minute, confiscating the favored spots soon as the alpha dogs vacate the camp. Starlight peeks between the clouds and barely penetrates the thick evergreen canopy, reflecting a light dusting of snow that began an hour ago.
In the distance, a never-sleeping city bounces its reflection off the cloud-cover, and a long mournful wail accents the rhythmic clatter of large metal wheels chugging slow but steady atop steel I-beams aimed at the stockyards. Long closed now, the vacant and mostly dismantled slaughterhouse once fed a major industry and anchored the Chicago economy and surrounding agricultural communities.
Four engines whine and whistle, a steel tune vibrates down from treble to bass as a mile-long caravan winds into that final bend and climbs a slight rise before crossing the city boundaries.
One man and his woman sit off in a separate section away from the fire, close enough to others for safety but distant enough for privacy. Eleanor McGee slips a pair of silver feather through a piercing in each ear, a gift from her current traveling companion. She leans in and plants a thank you kiss right where it counts.
Heath bought the gift for his sister at a Navajo roadside stand on his last journey west but changed his mind after meeting Ellie at a camp in New York a couple months ago. He didn't share that 'gift for sister in Boston' information with Ellie though.
Both watch the train rumble and slow, arcing into that last graceful curve. A lone shadow tosses a backpack and drops off a boxcar, stumbles once on the icy gravel slope then catches his balance and grabs the pack, slings it over a shoulder, and trots toward the hobo camp, weaving between frosty white pines and naked oaks.
Dry leaves rustle and twigs crack, and Heath Simmons turns an ear toward the noise. Wary, testing, he stands and says, "That you Tick? Couple days late."
An answer bounces back between the trees. "Yup, it's me, tardy to the party as usual. Don't make a schedule that needs keeping anymore. Figured you'd wait or move on and I'd track you south somewhere a bit warmer."
Tick pushes through the brush, drops his pack. "Got two extra days work. No sense leaving eighty-five bucks lying on the table." The brothers take a few steps and wrap up together. "Good to see you. Been too long." The men unwind slowly, the intimacy and fondness obvious.
Heath aims a finger at the new woman in his life, sitting and watching. "Ellie McGee, meet Tick, the younger."
The woman pushes up and offers a hand, firm and callused. Two strangers, a male and a female, touch and release, friends now, accepted, no questions asked.
"Like looking in a six-foot, hundred and ninety pound, grey-eyed mirror," she says. Ellie marvels at the duplicate image.
"Twins," she decides, aiming a finger at Heath, "and you're older."
"Fourteen minutes. How'd you guess?"
"No guess. You told. I listened. 'Tick, the younger', you said. Makes you older." She grins, "Gotta use both ears."
"Damn cold night." Tick unrolls a sleeping bag and slips inside it, scoots up and leans his back against an oak trunk, bites into an apple he swiped off a tree on the way in. He tosses one to his brother. Ellie snatches it in mid-air, removes a pocket knife, cuts the apple in half and shares with Heath.
Tick blows out a breath and shuts his eyes briefly, then bites into the fruit again and chews, reviewing his day, glad he'd found his brother so quickly.
The woman settles herself in close, beside Heath, soaking up body heat between them. Tick reads infatuation each time Heath looks at Ellie, but reads convenient each time Ellie looks back, protection and a release for the physical needs the young desire. Heath fills both needs, a temporary companion in her mind. A pairing that suits Heath forever if he gets his way, but a partnership only for the moment in Ellie's mind. Hard telling the future in either case.
Ellie nods her chin at Tick and says, "Odd name, Tick?" Her voice light and trim, like her body. Sensual, breathless and interesting rolled into one unkempt package. A few reddish curls hang out the front of her hood. No make-up, but patches of dirt and grit hide a plain and unremarkable face. Eyes as blue as the winter sky investigate this new acquaintance, a duplicate brother. She needs a bath though, Heath too.
Heath says, "Pa named him after the highway patrol officer in his favorite television show. No one ever called him Broderick though, too many syllables for us kids just learning to talk. And Mom insisted we leave off the first part. That term 'broad' on all those mafia and crime shows didn't sit right with her so she broke off the front and just called him Rick." Heath grins. "Lucky she named me first, left Pa out of it."
Tick pokes in a sentence. "About the time we hit two or three years old, Heath kept trying Rick but it always popped out Tick due to some oddity in his speech triggers. 'Tongue training,' the doc called it, but he probably made that up just to say it and sound smart. Dropped off naturally about time we turned five but the name stuck and everyone called me Tick just to keep things simple."
He laughs briefly, "And me, the brat kid getting even. I kept calling him Teath." Another quiet chuckle. "Mom wouldn't have none of it though, stuck soap in my mouth every time she heard it, so I quit."
Over near the burn barrel, a feminine titter rattles into the night once more. "Ha," Annie says, "the brand new one-step Gator diet. Take a shower and lose ten pounds." More group laughter.
Even Gator joins in, a true realist. Then he adds, "Sure like the sound of your voice a lot better with your mouth shut, Annie." The back and forth sarcastic wit ignites another round of giggles.
Tick rolls his eyes left and stares between the trees. Three scraggly men and one thin as a stick, line-faced woman huddle near the fire, four derelicts sitting cross-legged on the dirt, hunched in toward the warmth.
The thin woman just lost a bet. Said she could pop the cap off a Coors bottle with her one remaining tooth. Won that bet a few times but tonight that last soldier lies in the dirt, ignored, now worthless. She takes a blood-soaked rag out of her mouth long enough to say, "Well, that damn tooth was in the way what I gotta do sometimes to git meal money anyways." Her deep south Alabama twang nearly lost now in the hollow pink smile from which her words emerge.
She tucks the rag in between her lips and suddenly groans, the shock gone, sharp pain slipping in unannounced. "Saved a hundred bucks on a dentist though."
Her pals release a few chuckles, acknowledge the irony. But her humor fails this time and a grimace adds to a hard life and pulls her face into an aged look she's not truly earned yet in real years.
One man reaches inside his parka and withdraws a pint, tosses it across the flames. Greta catches it one-handed, unscrews the cap, removes the rag and tips up the bottle, swishes the smooth brown liquid around a few times then swallows. Eases the pain and disinfects the bleeding gum in one slick motion. "Can't beat that sweet burn," she grunts, tips it up once more then caps it, tosses it back.
"Thanks, Alfred." Greta refolds her bandage, finds a cleaner spot, sticks it between her gums and bites down.
The moon peeks out from behind cloud-cover, lights up a large metal culvert half-buried in a muddy creek bed running alongside the camp. A wooden structure spreads across its middle a few inches above the highest water-flow that tumbles through it whenever a heavy rainstorm hits.
Junkie scavenged a couple planks and a few branches and pine boughs months ago, laid them inside the culvert at that widest arch just above the high-water mark. Mostly it stays dry, but runoff splashes through its bottom whenever a storm drops its load while blowing its way north and east. The bed frame sits high and dry, his personal waterfront estate Junkie calls it.
Nick-named for the auto salvage yard where he once worked years ago, Junkie Harrison settles atop his clap-trap bed frame. He tosses and turns a bit, fluffs a towel under his head, getting himself comfortable for the night.
County road crosses over his culvert, and the spur line too, but the boxcars haven't moved in weeks. Junkie says he feels safer inside his curved metal house. He ignores the engine when it rumbles overhead, sporadically moving boxcars around the spurs, dropping some off, hauling some out.
'Don't hear so well anymore' he tells folks that ask.
He lies though, got superb hearing, was a sonar expert in the navy. Trained his brain to ignore the farm trucks passing over that patched-crack blacktop and the intermittent track noise the engines broadcast over the side rails.
One time, a particularly heavy flood washed him right out, bed and all. Junkie flapped around in it for awhile, got soaking wet, and finally hauled himself up on the embankment. Lucky for him it happened during the fall not winter or he'd probably frozen stiff. He owns no extra clothes.
Junkie wears all three sets at once, rotating one inside the other every few days, allowing the breeze to blow off that internal stink. It never works, but he rotates the clothes anyway. Something to do, keeping a schedule such as it is, in his own mind at least, counting down to nothing. He owns three t-shirts with the same message printed across the front and always readable. It announces 'God only created a few perfect heads - upon the rest he grew hair', a proverb that fits Junkie exactly, his shiny bare scalp often covered with a knit cap in winter and a Cubs ball cap in warmer seasons.
Tick wraps a bandana around his ears and straightens his old Boston Patriots hat, ignoring the soft murmurs and passionate groans of a sexual union that rise above the bushes behind him. The ad hoc partnership enjoys shared warmth and the false security these brief couplings provide. Heath Simmons and Ellie McGee alone in the wilderness, enjoying a cuddle afterward.
Suddenly, the murmurs become low, angry words Tick barely makes out. "Git away from it. Leave it be or we'll come back and hurt you bad."
A few slaps disturb the peaceful harmony and then a solid thump, and another. One more thump, hard and heavy, like a bat busting a melon. Tick pushes through the brush toward his brother and Ellie. A fist arrives out of nowhere and flattens his nose, splits a lip and sits him down hard.
"Stay down there tramp, this here ain't none a yore business," a stranger snarls.
Aggressive in life and not a man that takes orders well, Tick slides sideways and kicks out. The heel of his boot connects behind the left knee and drops the stranger straight down. A loud yelp cuts into the darkness. The man swings a heavy wooden dowel wrapped in tape, catches Tick on the hip as he rises and it knocks him down a second time.
Strong and fit despite his lifestyle, Tick twists sideways, grabs a hold and wraps his arms around two thighs then works his way up. Both men wrestle for a good grip, squirming around in the pine needles and mud, too close in to punch and cause any damage.
The struggle continues for half a minute that seems like an hour until Tick incidentally traps two fingers in his mouth, bites hard and shakes his head like a bulldog on a thief. Bones snap and crack, skin splits open and leaks blood. The stranger drops his weapon and screams. Tick pops up and kicks the man twice in the shins, once in the crotch.
"Yup, my business now, ain't it?" Breathing heavy, adrenalin pumping, anger pushing hard, Tick grabs the dowel and swats the stranger once, cracks a wrist, another swat across the shoulder, and a third lands a glancing blow off his tailbone.
The stranger scuttles away beneath the brush, and yells, "Let's git outta here, this guy's fuckin' crazy."
Sonar-trained ears pick up the squabble. Junkie lifts his head and watches three males dressed in black scramble through the woods and disappear, one limping and cursing, another one holding a red rag against his cheek. In the distance, an engine fires up and gravel clatters inside fender wells as a brown Ford pickup spins a horse-shoe turn and heads toward the city.
Junkie rolls off his nest, climbs the embankment and watches the truck cross over his home. Brand, model, color, and year he notes automatically, all that time he worked in the Wreck-Right salvage yard built a habit. Junkie memorizes its license plate, climbs back into his house and writes the details in a notebook. Nothing dull about Junkie, despite his less than sharp appearance.
Tick wipes the blood off his face and lip, takes three steps into the woods, stops and listens. Nothing. He starts a chase then thinks better of it when the sound of an engine revs up and trails off into the distance. He spots his brother lying in the dirt.
Ellie holds his head in her lap, balls up a handkerchief and puts pressure against a deep gash on his forehead. Blood leaks around it, runs steadily down his cheek, and drips onto his shirt.
"Not as bad as it looks," she says. "Scalp cuts always bleed a lot. I'm more worried about the knot above his ear. It's swelling pretty quickly, turning blue."
Tick drops down on a knee, "Heath, open your eyes." No response, silence. "Talk to me. Come on brother, talk to me. Open your eyes."
"He's unconscious, needs a medic," Ellie says, "You too, looks like. Go tell Annie. She burrows into the brush right behind the woodpile. Just call out her name, tell her who you are."
Tick takes two steps, turns back and kneels again, confused, looks at his hands, looks at his brother, says his name again. "Heath." A bit of fright taps into his brain, tries to worm itself inside and scare him. It succeeds.
"Go on, Tick. Hurry. Tell Annie."
He jumps up, angles past the culvert and down toward the burn barrel, trips twice in the dark, sprawling in the mud, yells, "Annie ... Annie ... Annie," and wakes everyone.
A few stick a head out, a few tunnel in deeper. All wonder what's in the works, but remain silent. No business of anyone but those directly involved. The way of camps like this, leave it alone unless it's yours. Help if it needs you, but not until asked. Private stays private.
"What? Damn it, what? Just got to sleep," a female voice groans. Annie crawls out and pops into view behind the stacked wood. "What?"
Tick explains briefly, "... some jerks beat up my brother. Heath needs a medic."
Annie stares a few seconds, "Yeah, you look just like him, 'cept for the split lip and bloody nose you got."
"Come on." Annie trots over and squeezes in next to the culvert, tells Tick, "Give Junkie a dollar."
"Just give him a dollar. He'll call the EMT's. Only cell phone here. Junkie guards it, hides it he thinks, everyone knows where though, ain't like he got a large house. It's got a little solar charger. No one touches it without asking and paying. Belongs to him. You got to pay for the minutes."
"You use it, costs a dollar so Junkie can keep it active. Got to call home, you put up or shut up. Just like E.T." Annie giggles, but then quickly turns serious again.
"Git up here Junkie, emergency time. Bring the phone."