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I was alone for six hours with my thoughts during the train ride. They were a mixed bag of fear and excitement, wariness and hope for a better future. I was taking a giant step toward adulthood and I had no idea what I was doing. But it had to be better than sleeping with a knife under your pillow.
As the train car rocked gently back and forth, the clackety-clack of the wheels on the tracks lulled me into a sense of safety. I had been in pure survival mode for days, and I was mentally and emotionally exhausted. My brother had nearly killed me and had he succeeded, I’m sure my mother would have found a way to blame me for it while standing over my grave.
I knew leaving home was my only option. I should have never gone back in the first place. I didn’t belong there. I would never fit in.
But where did I belong? I had only visited Chicago once before—a day trip with two friends to see a couple of museums. I remembered it being cold and windy. Not exactly homey. But it was a place to start. All I knew for sure was a lot of things needed to fall into place quickly as my meager monies would not last long, and I was determined not to overstay my welcome at Fred’s house.
I arrived in downtown Chicago around two in the afternoon. I found an information desk and they directed me to where I could catch the Blue Line subway to O’Hare. Thankfully, the airport was the last stop on the line and I wouldn’t have to pay too much attention to all the names of all the stops in between.
The subway was very interesting. It was packed and hot and smelly, but also full of so many different kinds of people. I loved it. I spent the next forty minutes watching people get on and off the train at the various stops, and fantasized about their daily lives. Some of the guys were incredibly hot, and I knew those were the ones who would feature in my upcoming fantasies. I did find myself wondering if any of the guys might be gay.
Fred met me as promised at the O’Hare airport terminal, and we beat the rush hour traffic back to his home in Schaumburg. His mother welcomed me warmly, so different from my own, and I was instantly jealous of Fred and what he had. A supportive family, a good job and a beautiful, peaceful home to live in. Simple things mean everything when you have none of them.
I shook myself out of the pity party that was brewing and unpacked my clothes in the guest bedroom. Fred told me dinner was at six, so I decided to rest a little beforehand. I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the trip.
At dinner later, the conversation turned to my looming job search, and Mr. Thompson surprised us all by asking me if I’d be interested in office work. I told him I was open to anything and he said they had a recent opening for an office manager he thought I might be good for. After explaining a little more about it, I was definitely interested. After dinner, he and I headed to his office, which was only fifteen minutes away.
He showed me around the small company, described what they did and then told me the starting salary for the open position. I had never made anything more than minimum wage, and this was clearly more—but not by much.
“When do I start?” I asked.
“How about tomorrow?” he replied. Who knew it could be so easy to find a job? I didn’t even have to go to Goodwill to buy a suit for an interview.
The next day, I rode into the office with Mr. Thompson and began my education into accounting and becoming an office manager. Unbeknownst to me, as I was getting my first exposure to debits and credits with Mr. Thompson, his wife was working on her own project.
Dinner the second night was take-out, as Mrs. Thompson informed everyone she had had way too much to do to have time to make dinner. The Chinese food she brought to the table was delicious. I gathered home-cooked meals were the norm in the Thompson house—another thing to be jealous of. I couldn’t remember the last time my mother had cooked a full course meal, which was too bad because she had been a pretty good cook.
After dinner Mrs. Thompson asked if I would take a ride with her to pick up some dessert for later. I could hardly refuse after all they had done for me in such a short time. We headed out and soon pulled into a large apartment complex. The buildings were nicely painted, the grounds were beautifully landscaped and cared for and there was no trash or junk lying around.
“What are we doing here?” I asked.
Turning off the car, she said, “I have something to show you. Come on, it’ll only take a minute.” I followed her to one of the apartment buildings and up a flight of stairs to number 2105. Inside, I saw no furniture, but there were a stack of white dishes stacked on the kitchen counter by the sink, a silver metal trash can and some newer-looking pots and pans sitting on an open shelf above the stove. Mrs. Thompson led me down the hallway, past the bathroom with thick brown towels hanging on the racks and into the single bedroom at the rear. On the floor, underneath a double window framed in simple yellow curtains, was a queen size air mattress covered with basic white sheets and a navy blue duvet cover. A white plastic nightstand stood near the head of the bed, holding up a small lamp.
Looking around with a smile on her face, she asked, “How does it look?”
“I think it’s very nice. But, if you don’t mind my asking, who are we meeting here?”
She laughed sweetly and grabbed one of my hands. “No one, honey. This is all for you. You live here now.”
My mouth dropped open as something warm and wonderful washed over me. I so did not want to cry in front of her but there was no stopping the tears. As they spilled down my cheeks, I stood there, looking around the apartment, and then back at her, full of questions. Why? Why would someone I barely knew do all this for me? I was nobody to her. Nothing made sense.
I tried to speak past the lump in my throat, but she stopped me.
“Jack, you don’t need to say anything. I hope I haven’t overstepped. It’s just...my husband and I talked about it, and I know you haven’t always had an easy time of things, and right now you need a little help to get things going right in your life. If you are going to work with my husband, then you need a place to live that you can afford. I knew the rent here would be doable and they rent for six months at a time, so you can always go somewhere else when you have a chance to explore the area a little more. There is a bus stop right inside the complex here and the bus takes you within two blocks of the office. That should work until you can find a car. I went to Wal-Mart and added a few small things to hopefully make it feel a little more like home. I know you didn’t bring anything with you but some clothes. I hope you like it.”
I wiped my eyes and face with the bottom of my shirt, took a deep breath, then let it out. “No one has ever done anything like this for me before. Ever. I don’t really know what to say. I appreciate it very much, it all looks perfect. But why me?”
She put her hands on my shoulders and looked me straight in the eyes. “Why not you? You are a smart, good-looking, gentle, nice young man who has every right to have a great life. You’ve worked hard in school, been responsible to work and take care of things and you strike me as a diligent sort of person. I think you are well worth investing in, and I wanted to help.”
“Well, I will pay you back for everything just as soon as I can.”
She laughed, lightly back handing my arm. “Nonsense, you will do nothing of the sort. I won’t accept it. This is not a loan—it’s a gift. Besides, you have to pay your own rent and utilities, so save your hard-earned money for those.”
“But I can’t just let you set me up in a home and do nothing in return,” I pleaded. “There must be something I can do to say thank you.”
“There is Jack, there is. For the rest of your life, remember someone once cared for you and helped you when you needed it the most. Then go and do the same for as many people as you possibly can. I believe you are a true giver, someone who has an infinite capacity to care for others. Fred told me you were the one who was always there when one of the guys needed something. How you would always share your pizza with someone who didn’t have the money for their own, or how you would always offer to buy gas if someone else was driving you guys somewhere or even how you worked to collect enough money for a bus ticket for Tim when he needed to get home to see his sick father. You made it possible. You even helped the guys who needed tutoring and, according to Fred, you would not accept anything back. He says you’re the reason why he passed calculus in his sophomore year. You just haven’t been taken care of yourself, and right now you are the one who needed a little help. So accept my help humbly, and continue to be you and go discover your life and all the people you will care for in the future.”
I smiled, hoping what she was saying was true. I didn’t see myself as a giver, but I was glad she did. She made me sound like the kind of guy I could be proud to be.
“I will do my best. I promise.”
“I know you will, Jack. Now, here are your keys.” She placed the keys in my hands and closed my fingers around them, giving them a gentle squeeze. “Come on, let’s go get the ice cream for the crew back home, and if you want, you can grab your stuff and come back here tonight. But Jack, you are always welcome in our home. Always.”
She hugged me, and I flinched. I tried to hug her back, but I was close to crying again, which was getting embarrassing. I just nodded and took the keys from her. I put my hand in my pocket as if to drop the keys in there, but I held on to them in my closed fist as we walked back out to the car. They felt good in my hand.