Prompt: I never knew | Word Count: 1770 words | Genre: Fiction
I never knew her real name. I only knew her as Honey, which probably fit her better than any legal name.
The first time I saw Honey, I almost laughed aloud. I’m embarrassed to say that today. But if you’d seen her that day, well, you’d get it. Honey was riding a bike, and she was wearing a crown of flowers. The flowers were plastic and faded: orange and yellow and used-to-be-red. Some had petals missing, and the leaves weren’t so green anymore on account of the sun. I saw her coming and she waved at me and grinned that smile with most of the teeth missing. And I snickered and giggled a bit because I could tell she was higher than the clouds, but I waved back, too.
She rolled to a stop right in front of my camp acting like she knowed me. I even wondered if I did know her because I used to drink too much back then. It was a way of passing those long nights on the edge of the park and quieting those demons inside of me. But that was before my first moment of clarity.
“Hey, Soldier,” she cooed. “You remember Honey, now, don’t you?”
Now, to be honest, I didn’t know her at all, but sometimes on the street it helps to play along. And she knew my name, Soldier, which is what all the street folk called me on account of my Army jacket. I am not book smart, but I keep learning even if school is in my past.
She rummaged in the basket on the handlebars and handed me a dirty rag wrapped around something small and heavy for its size. “I probably missed your birthday.”
She pedaled away, those flowers bobbing with her graceful movement. I unwrapped the object. It was a busted watch face, no band, with spidery cracks crossing the face which said 4:13. I don’t know why I remember that. I looked up again, and Honey had just turned a corner and was gone.
The second time I saw her, she remembered the watch. I’d been sleeping one off and she woke me up, shaking my shoulder.
“Hey, do you like the watch?”
“Think I lost it,” I shrugged, in that weird state between drunk and hung over. I thought she’d be mad. Usually these women street folk bend to vengeance if you cross them, but not Honey. In fact, she sidled up next to me, minding my stench less than I did, threw her blanket over us and fell asleep. In spite of my tiredness, I found it difficult to drift off, so unused to physical company was I. And her dreadlocked head smelled like yellow grass. Eventually slumber did come.
By morning, she was gone, but her blanket remained. Soft dreams of Honey had filled my sleep, but I doubted darkly any future. The street is no place for romance, and the prospect of more than mere survival is dangerous. Honey sharing space with me meant nothing. I told myself that all morning.
She didn’t return to claim her blanket for three days, and she was in a bad way when she did show up. It tore me near in half to see her strung that way, worse even than the bruises on her face and around her long neck.
She wouldn’t talk to me, but we walked to the soup kitchen. She nibbled at what she could eat with the few teeth left in her mouth. She’d lost that crown of flowers, too. Now, you might be thinking that she was homely. She wasn’t. Despite her bruises and lack of teeth, when she wasn’t sick, she glowed. Her cinnamon skin looked lit up from within. On days like that, she’d dance in the dappled shade of the cottonwoods, moving to music that no one else heard.
Street folk like us are a pretty loose organization. Someone new is always arriving, others move on. A few are constant fixtures, like me. I arrived in ’72 with my wife Janine. We weren’t street folk then. We had a little trailer we lived in that we pulled with our car. Car broke down and I found a job bagging groceries. Janine found work as a crossing guard. But then she got sick. I lost my job on account of the time I had to miss to care for her. We had to sell the trailer when she went into the hospital, and I lived in the car for a while, until she was gone. I drank myself to oblivion for a long span. I was probably trying to kill myself, but I was doing it the slow way. I can see that now.
Jimbo and Simpson arrived shortly after me. And Annette has been here a couple years but we avoid her. She’s crazy like a loon, voices in her head and such, and she lashes out violently if they tell her to. She gets locked up pretty regular, but always comes right back to the park. Most of us here have issues, but Annette is truly crazy. We keep to ourselves, mostly, understanding that we’re out here because we don’t fit in with regular society. We need more space than regular folk.
But Honey shook me up. I wasn’t in love with her, I swear. She was nothing like my Janine. She was maybe twenty, too young for a geezer like me. We never talked much. There was some quality about her, though, that made the light seem different. You know, like after a summer thunderstorm that ends just before sunset, and everything is clean and golden for a spell.
The last day I saw Honey - that’s where this story was going. It was getting near fall, the mornings crisp and bright and I was stiff and achy from the night’s chill. I’d been drinking since I don’t know when with Jimbo. Honey was walking toward us, quite some distance away. Even from a hundred yards, I could tell that she was strung again, and limping, too. She held her head high on that long graceful neck.
Sitting up, I waved her over. She approached and I could see then that her ankle was bruised and swollen. She had a fat lip and a black eye forming.
“Hey Soldier,” she whispered.
“Sit down, Honey.” I was trying to stand up to help her, but I wasn’t much help in my drunk state.
She eased herself down, mostly falling.
“I’m so tired,” she whispered, a fresh drop of blood glistened in the split of her lower lip. She was asleep almost immediately. I sat with her, wondering if her john was looking for her and if he was the one who’d beaten her this time.
I covered her with my blankets, but later she was feverish and kicked them off. I’d never seen her this bad, but by nightfall she was vomiting, nothing but bile coming up. Her lip had cracked open again and her eye was swollen shut. I was starting to think her ankle was broken, it was swelled up like a ball and she cried out if anything touched it.
“She don’t look so good.” Jimbo said, passing the bottle.
I swigged, feeling the relief of alcohol entering my bloodstream. “Never seen her this bad.”
Jimbo knelt down and starting rocking forward and back, “Please Jesus, help Honey.” He closed his eyes and murmured, mixing up prayers he’d learned.
“Jimbo, go get dinner. Bring some back for Honey.”
He finished his prayer, nodded, and ran off in his lopsided way across the park.
Honey was shivering, probably her teeth would chatter if she’d enough of them. I was getting scared. I couldn’t keep the blankets on her, so I laid down next to her and threw my arm and leg over. It felt like she was going to bust apart.
And then I heard Annette coming, fire and brimstone flying from her mouth. I knew she’d see us, that Honey and I would be attacked by that crazy woman.
“Harlot!” She cried and I sat up. A rock hit me, square in the jaw, knocking a couple teeth out.
Scrambling up as best I could, I picked up the rock and faced Annette. Her eyes were wild, spittle covered her chin and her face and arms were covered in scratches.
Annette threw another rock, but this time I ducked.
“Annette, I don’t want to hurt you. You need to leave.”
I could hear sirens and hoped someone else had called the authorities about Annette.
“I. Am. Not. Annette.” She screamed each word separately and reached into her pocket.
I was afraid she had another rock, or worse, and so I threw the one in my hand. It hit her square in the shoulder, knocking her down, but she scrambled right up. I scanned the ground for another rock, or anything I could use to protect myself and Honey.
From behind me, I heard a voice over a bullhorn. “This is the police. Put your hands up! Now!”
I was relieved but also afraid. The police always were rough with us, even those of us like me who committed no crimes. I knew they’d take Annette away and they’d get Honey to the hospital, but I’d probably end up in County.
I fell to my knees, raising up my hands. Annette, seeing my vulnerable position, charged me, knocking me down. She was trying to bite my hands, my face. The police were there soon enough, hauling her off and cuffing her; they rolled me over and cuffed me, face down in the dirt.
“Please,” I said. “Help my friend. Under the blankets.”
The two officers peeled back the blankets and Honey rolled over, facing me. She was smiling weakly. One officer used his radio to call for help, the other knelt and checked the pulse on her neck. She was turning blue, like she’d stopped breathing.
I cried out, desperate to help her. I struggled to my feet. Everything went black.
I woke later in jail; I must’ve blacked out. I don’t remember what happened after Honey had smiled at me. They dried me out in the drunk tank and eventually I went back to the park. I wish I could say I quit drinking that day, but every day I fight that demon. I still look for Honey. It’s been seven months now. I hope one of these days she’ll ride up on that bike, a new flower crown on her head, smiling that toothless grin, bearing gifts.