Wheeler awoke to the sounds of traffic below him. He wondered, not for the first time, why taxi drivers got up before the sun did. His stomach growled. He needed to find real food today.
He sat up and pulled out his battered pocketwatch. 5:30. The church bells wouldn't ring until 8. He moaned. He was hungry! And his cd player was out of batteries, too. He stared at the street below the church steeple where he'd been sleeping. Yellow taxi's zipped by in both directions, in a great hurry to go nowhere in particular. People walked quickly by, stepping over a sleeping hobo like he wasn't even there. The pretzel vendor was similarly bypassed.
Wheeler had enough for a pretzel.
“Top o' the morning t' yeh, sir.” The man gave Wheeler a smile missing three teeth as he approached. “What can I do for yeh today?”
“Pretzel.” Wheeler muttered through his scarf. “How much?”
“Only a dollar, sir.” The man pulled one out of his cart. Wheeler handed him a dollar. “Want anythin' on it?”
“Nice talkin' to ya, then!” The man waved goodbye, and turned back to hawking his wares to the disinterested passers by. Wheeler joined the slow trickle of early morning pedestrian traffic as he made his way across the city. Was the guitar repair place open yet? Probably not. He should stick around to hear the bells, then go later. But people always gave him more money in the morning, it seemed. And if the guitar place was open, he wouldn't need the bells anyway, though he did enjoy them. And then he could relocate to someplace less drafty.
Fifteen minutes later, he stood disappointed in front of Rocky's Rock On Guitar Sales and Repair, closed on Saturdays. He swore softly. No guitar today, and likely as not no guitar tomorrow. He walked away, disgusted. And he didn't have enough to pay for batteries and the repair bill, and of course Rocky's had a large, obvious sign stating that they did not under any circumstances take credit. He'd been counting on that guitar today!
Wheeler started back to the church. He was beginning to ache all over. He hated feeling hungry. The noise of the traffic zooming by only furthered his annoyance.
“Will you shut up?” he growled at the cars. Traffic continued regardless, and a man walking by gave him a strange look. “Quit tempting me!”
He glared at the street as he walked along, his hands jammed into his jacket pockets. Oh, what he would give for a street musician right about now. Ironic, since he normally hated seeing them because it meant more competition for him. Maybe that annoying girl with the violin would be in the park... No, she only came in the afternoons, and he didn't want to deal with her today. She thought she was so much better than him, just because she wasn't homeless... The old guy who sat behind the burger place, maybe? No, he'd been chased off for loitering almost a week ago. Too bad, he was pretty good.
He sighed. He hadn't really been here long enough to get a handle on where more than a few of the musicians were. How long had it been now, a month? No, less than that. He'd been working at the soup kitchen over Thanksgiving, and he'd moved at least twice since then. He wondered how the nuns would be spending Christmas this year. If he had enough, he'd send them a gift. Maybe he could carve them a cross; that would certainly make Sister Valerie happy. And Sister Bertha would just be happy to learn that he hadn't starved yet.
But Sister Mary probably wouldn't even notice. She'd be too busy with the Christmas concert.
Wheeler sighed again. He missed the nuns, especially Mary. He almost wished he'd found a way to stick around after he turned 18. Maybe if he didn't need to wander so much, he could've.
Wheeler turned down a side street on his way to the church. He nearly tripped over an older man laying in the alley.
“Got any change, sir?” the old man muttered.
“Sorry.” Wheeler shrugged. “I got nothing, unless you're short on bad luck.”
The man laughed, wheezing. “I've got plenty of that. God bless you anyway.”
Wheeler nodded. “God bless.”
The man burst into a coughing fit as Wheeler walked by. He glanced back over his shoulder, then stopped short. Blood. The old man was coughing up blood.
“Hey, you alright?” Wheeler changed his tone to one slightly less insolent and slightly more concerned than what he usually used.
“I'm just old, moldy and cold,” the old man wheezed as he tried to laugh again. “I'm fine.”
“Hey man, you're coughing up...”
The old man went into another fit of coughing. He stared at his hand for a moment afterwards. “Huh. I'm bleeding.”
“Hey, man, you need to have a doctor look at that.”
“Can't afford no doctor...”
“The emergency room won't turn you away.”
“Can't get there... too far...” The old man slumped, shivering in the cold.
“I'll take you.” Wheeler knelt down. Why was he doing this? He didn't need anything else to worry about. He should just walk away.
And yet, somehow, he didn't.
Wheeler picked the old man up as best he could. Luckily, the man was practically a stick. “You know where it is?”
“That way...” the man pointed north with a shaking hand. “corner of... seventh and... Turner drive...”
“Got it.” Wheeler ignored the stares of the passersby. “Keep talkin', man, I don't want you going into shock. What's your name?”
“That short for Theodore?”
“Yeah...” the old man coughed again. “But nobody calls me that anymore. I used to be Theo...”
“Eh... stock markets, divorce. Lots of stuff. Now I'm Teddy.” The man paused, drawing in a raspy breath. “I have a daughter, you know. Haven't seen her in a long time... Her mom took her when we split...” Wheeler rounded a corner, only to be met by the blinding first rays of the sun on the horizon.
“That's too bad. Do they know that you're out here?”
“No... no... I haven talked to her in such a long time... She probably hates me.”
“What's her name?”
“We named her... Francisca...”
“After St Francis?”
“You know the saints, boy?”
“Raised by nuns, man. Hard to avoid it.” Wheeler glanced both ways at the crosswalk. “Patron Saint of animals, the environment, Italy, and stowaways. Two feasts, both in fall, born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy, to a rich merchant, and he was originally named after John the baptist. Which is to say,” he paused as he steered his way through a crowd, “Yes. I know the Saints.”
The old man laughed again, then fell into a coughing fit. “Sounds like it. We wanted her to be... gentle like him... Didn't work out.”
“Eh, names don't mean much; Living proof, right here.”
“Stephen. First Martyr of the church, patron saint of headaches, horses and Belgium. Germany too. And Italy, but they have so many that I don't count it.” Wheeler stared at a street sign for a moment. “I'm not him. I'm not wise, I'm not a great speaker, and I definitely am not a martyr. I do have a headache, though.”
“So, then, Stephen...”
“Wheeler. Everyone calls me Wheeler.”
“Wheeler, eh?” The old man coughed into his sleeve, staining it red. “Why's that?”
“Like I said, I'm no Stephen.”
“Right,” Teddy mumbled, zoning out.
“Hey, man, stay with me. Only ten blocks or so 'til the hospital.”
“Tha's a mile, boy.”
“Only a mile, man. Positive thinking.”
“You'll have to forgive this old man... Sorry about all this.”
“Hey, it's alright, man, I had nothing to do anyway.”
Ten blocks later, Wheeler deposited the old man in a wheelchair in the emergency room. “Stay here.”
“Not gonna be a problem...” Teddy sunk into his chair, soaking in the warmth of the heated hospital.
“Can I help you, Sir?” the receptionist asked politely. She fingered a clipboard with insurance papers on it, half impatiently.
“Not me,” Wheeler said, shaking his head. “Him. He doesn't have insurance, but he's coughing up blood. Didn't know what to do with him.”
“How long has he been..”
Behind them, Teddy burst into another coughing fit, spattering blood all over himself and the floor. The receptionist stared. “I'll see what I can do.” She disappeared into the back part of the ER.
Wheeler sighed and took a seat next to Teddy. He picked up a magazine on nutrition, flipped through it for a moment, and put it back down. At least the ER wasn't busy. They should see him within an hour at least, and there's no way the warm air of the waiting room could hurt anything.
A jolt of pain ran through his body. He suddenly realized something. The warm air couldn't hurt Teddy, but it was dead quiet in here! He moaned.
Teddy glanced at him. “You ok?”
“Just hungry.” Wheeler replied. “Nothing a sandwich and half an hour of bad cafeteria muzak couldn't fix.”
“Mr... Um...” The receptionist stood at the door to the back.
“Mr... Teddy. Right. We can see you now.”
“Thanks, Ma'am.” Teddy tried to stand as he spoke, but couldn't. Wheeler pushed the wheelchair where he rested to the door, where the receptionist stood waiting.
“Sorry, man, but I don't think I can take you any further.” Wheeler held up his hands in a defeated sort of gesture. “Patient privacy and all that.”
“Well, I'll see you later, then. God bless you, Wheeler.” Teddy sat up straight and nodded to him as the receptionist wheeled him into the back part of the emergency room. Wheeler waited by the desk, not quite sure of what to do. The receptionist reappeared momentarily.
“Are you related to Teddy?” she asked, clearly surprised that he was still there. “Is he your father, or...”
“Tripped over him.”
“So you just brought a random stranger to the hospital?”
“Yeah.” Wheeler shifted from one foot to the other nervously. “He got no place to go.” He kicked himself for what he was about to do. “Here.” He handed her the 50 dollars that he'd saved to repair his guitar. “It's not much, but it's all I've got. I know it won't even begin to cover his hospital bill, but...” Wheeler shrugged. “Best I can do.”
“...Thank you.” The woman took the money hesitantly. “I'll tell him it was from you...”
“Don't bother.” Wheeler turned to leave. “I'll pay as much of his bill as I can... I might be back.” He waved goodbye without turning around, and walked out.
He made it less than a block from the hospital before he collapsed. He cursed himself and his stupidity over and over again. He was so dead. He now had no way of getting his guitar back, a hospital bill to pay, and he'd gone and missed the bells, all for the sake of some random stranger who he could have just walked away from. What on earth possessed him to do such stupid things?!
He gave in and allowed the traffic noise to wash over him, his head in his hands. It nauseated him, but it was better than the gnawing hunger he'd been feeling all day. So now he was homeless, guitarless, saddled with a debt not his own, and he was probably going to be sick. Great.
Yeah, this was going to be a wonderful day. He could just tell.
This makes no sense if you haven't read Wheeler's profile. If you haven't read Wheeler's profile, he lives off of sound. Anyway, meet Wheeler. Say hi, Wheeler.
Ok, fine. Don't say hi. See if I care.