There was a time I wore ribbons in my hair. Sometimes bubblegum pink, occasionally sunshine yellow, but usually virginal white. It was what my father preferred: hair pinned up, two ribbons dangling down and tickling the back of my neck, a crisp cotton sundress with daisies scattered across the fabric and unscuffed sandals that could easily be slipped off for a quick traipse through the ever present foamy surf.
But that time is not now.
My stomach growls again and I look back at the alley cat sitting a foot in front of me. To see it, you would think it had no cares in the world. Just lounging lazily in the summer sun next to a full bowl of fresh kitten kibbles (seafood medley flavor by the smell of it). But we have been at this for nearly an hour now- me inching closer to the treasured food bowl and he staring me down. He has not taken a bite of the food which infuriates me more with every passing second. If he would eat I'd go on about my way and search for another bowl. Even I don't feel desperate enough yet to steal food from a starving homeless kitten. Instead, he sits guarding and taunting me, neither eating nor moving. I consider rushing him but I already know he has no fear of humans. Like servants, volunteers bring him food twice a day like clockwork while I hide deeper in the shadows of the boardwalk, wishing I was a homeless cat instead of a skinny 17 year old girl. At least then I'd get fed regularly.
His gold eyes close for the briefest second and I move as fast as I can considering I'm crouched on all hours in the sand. I grab a handful of kibble, curse him for not even moving (spoiled feline) and launch myself onto the open beach. My eyes blink rapidly against the brilliant sunlight and then fall on the rotund shadow a few inches away.
"How many times do I have to tell you stay off my beach?"
"It's a public beach, Mr. Morrow."
"Smart ass today, are you?" He looms closer and I flinch.
"No, sir. It's just the tourists won't be up for hours."
"Tourists or not, I can't have vagrants by my store. It's bad for business."
"Girl, you got one sassy mouth on you. I oughta-"
I close my eyes, bracing for the hit I expect to come. Instead, I hear Morrow cough.
"Morning. Lovely day, isn't it?"
"There a problem here?"
It has to be a cop. Beach patrol with a corny line like that. Or maybe visitor services. I open my eyes and smirk. A new one stripe patrolman.
"No problem. Just checking up to make sure the cats got fed this morning. Wouldn't want the strays disturbing the tourists. You know what it's like."
"Indeed I do." The cop's eyes fell to me. "Out early, aren't you?"
"Run on the beach."
"I'm going to head back." Morrow nods our direction, already backing away.
"What have you got there?"
His eyes have focused on my fist and I clinch it tighter.
"If you are throwing rocks-"
"It's not rocks," I mumble and can feel my face starting to flush.
"Let me see."
I'm to weak to struggle agaist him, although I give it my best attempt. He forces my hand open and the kibble tumbles out of my palm: star shaped, square shaped, a little brown "x". So it wasn't seafood medley, after all. Lamb and rice. That would've made for a good breakfast.
Shame and embarrassment wash over me and I drop my head to hide the stream of tears. "I was just so hungry and they are so well fed," I whisper, knowing it's a pitiful excuse. Stealing food from a homeless cat. How pathetic am I?
He drops my hand and says nothing for several minutes. But he doesn't leave either. I can feel his eyes staring, probably trying to decipher my entire life story (as if that were remotely possible) or maybe he was just waiting for me to pull myself back together.
"I'm sorry for the emotional outburst," I offer apologetically. "I'll be moving on, I promise."
"The emotional outburst?"
I hear the amusemet in his voice and can't help but look at him. Young, only a few years older than me. Cleancut, well shaven, dark hair growing a touch longer than regulation allowed...a rebel in his own, safe type of rebel way.
"I'm just tired and-"
"Hungry. Obviously. Come on, let me buy you breakfast."
Charity. The thing I'd sworn to never accept. My rumbling stomach warred with my pride, neither coming out the victor. Instead, I tucked my hands into my pockets and looked out at the rising tide, hoping it would offer some solution that would fill my belly and yet keep me from dropping to boardwalk beggar status.
"Is it the uniform?" he asked.
"You speak exceptionally well for someone surviving on cat food." He fell short when my eyes cut toward him. "I only meant-"
"I know what you meant. I haven't been homeless forever, you know, and I do attend school."
Or I did. Whether they'd let me return in the fall was still up in the air but he certainly didn't need to know that.
His certainty caused me to hesitate and I looked at him more closely. He did, in fact, look vaquely familiar. But I knew no one on the Atlantic City police force, of that I was 100% certain. Still, the broad width of his shoulders, the olive toned skin that was a rare aberration in this town anymore...
Sensing my frantic observations, he tugged his sleeve a few inches above his wrist, revealing the tiniest of tattoos. A trio of seagulls mid-flight. My breath caught and I stumbled backward.
"That's more the language I'm used to hearing out of your mouth," he chuckled and tilted his head in greeting. "Welcome back to the boardwalk, Carolena."
His hand moved to the small of my back and he urged me forward, his head dropping into my shoulder. "Breakfast, I'm sure, is the least of the things I owe you."