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Ghosts in the Street: Flash Fiction

Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.

The streets of the city are my workplace. The alleys and culverts, abandoned buildings and vacant lots, breezeways, parks, and that tent community down by the river are the places I call home. The people are my family.

Toward all of this, the people of this town just turn a blind eye. On one hand that’s good because it means my friends and I aren’t always looking for a new place to call home. On the other, it means the homeless have become even more invisible than ever, like ghosts haunting the streets of the city.

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What do I do for them? Mostly I take care of the normal stuff like food, clothing, medicine for a sick kid. Sometimes I have to run off some clueless teenagers who just want to be mean.

There was this little girl, four years old, and she was really sick. I figured the kid was going to die. I don't have a car, so I picked her up and carried her the five miles from the river to the emergency room. No one stopped and offered to help us. We are homeless. We are invisible, like ghosts who haunt the streets.

The little girl had pneumonia. The hospital kept her a long time. When she was well, they wouldn't send her back to her family because they lived by the river. She went to a foster home. I keep an eye on the house and the family. They’re being good to her.

Someone called me an angel, once. Think of that. Me, an angel. I’m a homeless man helping homeless people. I get lucky sometimes and come up with a bunch of groceries or medicine, that’s all.

Two really bad men moved into the riverside community. They were running from the cops and threatened everybody with guns. Said they’d shoot anyone who told the cops they were there. The men took what little food the people had and made a spectacle of eating it in front of them, tossing what they didn’t want into the river.

I had been gone for a while, I can't remember where. But when I came back, I heard about these bad men. I headed over to the riverside as fast as I could get there. The men were in their tent. I called them out. They took one look at me and started laughing. I was one homeless guy against two men with guns.

I reacted without thinking. The next thing I knew, the police were hauling the bad men away. Friends told me I had moved like a bolt of lightning, that I grabbed both men and slammed them against a tree where they fell unconscious. I don't remember any of that. I'm not sure I believe it ever happened. But the men are gone, thank God.

#

It’s been raining for days. I just got a call from the city. They want me to get the people away from the river because there might be flash floods during the night that could cause the river to rise quickly, especially with the added water from the snowmelt in the mountains around the city. Rather than sending someone out themselves, they want me to go. Maybe they’re too busy with other problems.

The officials were a little behind with their prediction that the river might rise. It’s already up. When I arrive, people are tearing down their tents and hovels as fast as they can. One young lady, her name is Mary, is trying to keep her eye on her six-year-old boy, Stevie, and get their things together at the same time. They have a little mutt dog they named Pepper because he sneezes a lot. I help Mary take the tent down, and when we look to check on Stevie, he and Pepper are gone.

I run outside. The roar of the river is deafening now. Stevie is chasing Pepper toward the water’s edge. The dog just wants a drink, but the current grabs him. Stevie goes right in after the dog. A tree sweeps past with its branches snagging other debris as it goes. Like the tentacle of an octopus, a branch snags Stevie just as he grabs hold of Pepper. They are caught in the branches of the tree. It rolls this way, then that, dipping the poor child and the dog beneath the current.

In an instant, I’m there, reaching for Stevie, pulling him to my chest, stuffing the dog between us. I lift them from danger and set them on dry ground. The homeless people look at me like I’m a stranger. When I approach, they back away. I try to recall what I might have done to frighten them, but it all happened so fast, it’s a blur in my mind.

Tree in Flooded River

#

I just woke up. Everything around me is white, or is it light? Is this a hospital? Did I have a heart attack? Was I hurt while helping Stevie? I don’t see any IV poles or anything else you might find in a hospital room. There isn’t even a button to call the nurse.

A man comes in. His smile is so bright, so genuine, he makes me smile too.

“Well done, Thomas,” he says to me. “You’ve earned a rest. Welcome home.”

I get up and follow the man outside. Everything is white. Or is it light? Well, what do you know? Stevie’s words last night as I pulled him from the river make sense now. I’ll never forget the smile on his face in the midst of all the danger. He told me that I had wings. That’s how I saved him and Pepper. I flew to them and carried them back to shore.

Look at me. I am an angel.

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© 2018 Chris Mills

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