It was cold. The midnight air seeped through the tears in the old blanket sending shivers up Gemma’s spine. The wind picked up and blew a plastic bag a few away from her. It held the scraps of food from last night. Gemma tried to get up, but groaned and slumped back down. The bag could stay where it was.
She wanted to cry, to get the hurt out of her, but the tears would come out— if she had any left. She wanted to scream the anger and frustration away. She had tried once, but the hatred and bitterness lingered in her mind. Now, all she could do was cope with the loneliness and try to survive.
It wasn’t always like this. Before the incident, Gemma, and her four siblings lived in a big house where love and security was a thing. Her mom and dad were together and everyone felt like they belonged there. It felt like home.
Gemma winced at the thought. Where was home now? When dad left for good, he was gone. Mom couldn’t bring in money, care for five children, and deal with the stress of being a single mom, so finally, when it was too much, she sent them all away.
To different homes.
Being sent from one house to the next took a toll on Gemma. She just wanted to be with her family. Mom, dad, brothers, sisters. In front of the fireplace, sipping hot cocoa and staying warm. For a moment, Gemma could almost feel the coziness, hear the laughter, see the smiles. For a moment, Gemma was home.
When a hand touched her shoulder, Gemma snapped back to reality. It was dark, but she was able to make out a silhouette of a person—or more specific, a man— next to her. Fear spiked through Gemma’s body. She scrambled to get as far away as possible. The man followed.
“Hey, sorry to scare you. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
Gemma didn’t stop, but he continued. “I’m a friend of Cindy Dawson.”
Gemma stopped and turned around. Cindy Dawson?
“She told me to bring this to you.” The man held out a cardboard box. He urged it into Gemma’s hands. “It’s to keep you warm.” He turned to leave. “Have a good night.”
Gemma stood there for a while. Not moving, but thinking. The man knew Cindy Dawson— everyone knew Cindy Dawson— but did Cindy Dawson really know about her? Gemma Allen? The homeless girl who slept outside and ate whatever she could find? The girl who tried to stay hidden and unknown?
Finally, Gemma opened the box. It revealed mittens, a hat, scarf, and a blanket. Cindy Dawson knew of her?
Gemma’s eyes shifted up to the apartment complex by her. Up on the fourth floor light peered out of a window. An old woman with short gray hair smiled down at her. Then, she closed the curtains and turned off the single light.
“Can I help you?”
She wore a cream knitted sweater with dark blue jeans and silver high heel ankle boots. She stood behind a wooden desk with a sign that read FRONT DESK.
Gemma blinked. The lady looked like she knew what she was doing. Gemma couldn’t remember the last time she had talked to someone other than herself.
“Umm, yeah. Do you know where Cindy Dawson lives.” Gemma stumbled over her words like a person who was still learning the language.
The lady smiled. “I can find out. Do you want to visit her?” Gemma knew she was just talking, and not actually wanting to know, so she just nodded. The lady flipped through a gigantic white binder murmuring Dawson. Dawson, Dawson Dawson. “Ah, here we go. Cindy Dawson’s apartment number is #47. That would be on the fourth floor.” She pointed towards the elevator sign. “The elevator is right over there.”
Gemma walked over to where the elevators were. There were two elevators, but both doors were closed. By each one, there was an up arrow button and a down one. Gemma figured she’d push the up one because she was going up. Soon, the elevator dinged and the doors opened. She stepped in and the doors closed.
There were so many buttons! Gemma couldn’t remember the last time she used an elevator— if at all. Gemma stared at the buttons like they would do what she wanted them to so. The elevator didn’t move. Neither did Gemma. Gemma pondered over if she should use the stairs, but she decided not to. How humiliating it would be if someone found out she didn’t know how to use an elevator.
As she was standing there, the door opened and someone stepped inside. Gemma looked at the lady and blushed.
“Hi. I’m just trying to figure out how to work this,” Gemma said, studying the numbers.
The lady smiled and showed off her sparkling white teeth. She pushed a button that said “7”. “Okay. What floor do you want to go to?” Gemma gave it to her, and the lady pushed number 4. “Okay, here we go.”
Gemma’s stomach felt sick as the elevator moved upwards. She was very thankful when the door opened on the fourth floor.
It didn’t take long for Gemma to find apartment #47. She knocked on the door, and waited. When an old man opened the door, Gemma quickly looked at the room number again. It still said #47.
“Um, hi. Does Cindy— I mean, Mrs. Dawson live here?”
The old man chuckled and replied, “Yes, Mrs. Dawson lives here. Why don’t you come in while I fetch her.”
Gemma nodded and stepped inside the grandmotherly- decorated apartment. When the man turned the corner down a hallway, Gemma suddenly felt shy.
What was she thinking to come and meet Cindy Dawson? Should she run? But it was too late now. An old woman stood in front of her with some cookies in her hand.
“Hello there,” Cindy started. “Can I help you?” Her smile lit up the room, and Gemma was relaxing.
“Um, well, not exactly. I wanted to thank you for the mittens and stuff.”
Before she could go on, Cindy interrupted and pointed to the couches. “Why don’t we have a seat first.” Gemma followed her and sat down on a flowery couch. She began to speak, but Cindy cut her off again. “You are welcome to the cookies as well. Now, you can go on.”
Gemma smiled and looked down at the cookies. “Last night I was really cold and sad. I had been thinking of my family before the divorce and how everyone had been so happy. And here I was sleeping on the streets. I was lonely and scared. And then the man came and gave me the mittens and stuff. I knew they came from you, so I wanted to say thank you.” Gemma stopped to take a breath. “It meant a lot to me.”
For the next hour, Gemma and Cindy talked together. They shared stories. Cindy shared funny stories of her childhood, and Gemma shared hers. She had never shared her whole story with anybody, but Cindy seemed trustworthy.
At that thought, Gemma stopped talking. She had been sharing how she ended up without a home. All alone, with no place to go.
And then, here she was. Sharing what she had kept to herself all these years with a stranger. Gemma thought she must be going crazy, but Cindy was waiting for her to continue, so she did.
“It was the day I ran away. My plan was to go back home, I just needed some time to think and be alone. Then the sky got dark and it got cold and I realized I didn’t know my way back to my aunt’s house, which was where I was staying. I was lost.
“And that’s when I realized that I didn’t want to go back to the house. Yeah, I loved my aunt, but she wasn’t close to me. So I decided not to try to find my way home again because having a home wasn’t a reality to me anymore. Instead, I stayed hidden and on my own. That is, until I met you.”