The concrete street reflected the early summer sun with a matte glow that gave me a headache. Even the colorful paint on the bricks along the top of the bridge and artistic graffiti on its short sides and on the buildings nearby couldn’t relieve the blinding brightness.
I took a deep breath, coughing a little on the dry air filled with exhaust and the smell of warm tar. A deep silence surrounded me, the sound of a neighborhood stiffled. The street wasn’t a busy one, the businesses didn’t draw many customers, and the Bridge Kids gathered in small groups, conserving their energy for their money-making efforts throughout the night.
I already missed the hills and trees surrounding my home, filled with noisy birds and rustling leaves.
Joseph shuffled his feet next to me as we peered into the reflected light at the people around the Rainbow Bridge. This was one of the major places that the young and homeless ended up in Indianapolis. It was Muriel's favorite stomping ground.
“Hey, rich girl!”
I looked toward the voice and smiled.
“Sup, Hound Dog,” I called out. We walked a few feet down the sharp incline and reached out to take the hand of the scruffy young man with a faded black tribal tattoo covering the back of his neck and his ears gauged to make room for two-inch wide plugs in the stretched lobes.
“Not much. Keepin' things going.”
I nodded. Hound Dog had been on the streets since he was fourteen, having left his parents' home more than a decade earlier when his dad decided to beat the gay out of him. He was well-known for taking the new young homeless under his wing and teaching them how to survive. He was a man of his word and got a lot of respect for what he did.
Hound Dog looked us over and ran a hand through his dirty blond hair, making it stick up in uneven spikes. “No messing around then.” He sighed. “I heard from Mercy that Muriel had gotten herself involved in some deep shit.”
“Mercy?” I hadn't heard the name before, so she must be a newer Bridge Kid.
“Yeah, she showed up about two months back. She really helps take care of the younger kids. Wicked right hook, too,” Hound Dog grinned. “Muriel's been gone for a couple weeks, so I doubt you'll find her here, but Mercy might know where she's gone off to. She took a special liking to Muriel.”
“She just seems to latch on to the most vulnerable kids and keeps 'em from jumpin' into the fire.” Hound Dog scratched at his unshaven chin as he scanned the people around the bridge. “Lemme see. I saw her hangin' around just a bit ago. There she is.” He gestured to us to follow and jogged up the steep shoulder and across the bridge.
Joseph and I scrambled our way up the shoulder and ran to catch up to Hound Dog just as he slowed to a walk and approached a group of five kids sitting on the bank and sharing a bag of bruised-looking apples, probably gotten from a recent dumpster dive.
Four of the kids looked underage, but a blond woman in a red flannel shirt seemed closer to mid-twenties. She looked up as we came near, locking her ice blue gaze onto me and Joseph.
“Hey, Mercy,” Hound Dog said. “This is Nicola and Joseph. They're friends. Lookin' for Muriel.”
Her eyes flicked over to Hound Dog before raking over us again. “And what’re they gonna do with her?”
I gave Mercy the eyebrow. “We are tryin' to find out how much trouble she is actually in. And if it’s something we have to get involve in.”
“How you gonna do that?” she asked in her smooth alto voice. Her disdain was obvious. “You got super powers or somethin'? Maybe you think throwing money at a problem solves it.”
I frowned. The dig was blunt – how could we possibly help a street kid, since we obviously weren’t a part of that culture?
Hound Dog cleared his throat. “Mercy, back off. These two have the juju to find this stuff out.”
“Prove it.” Mercy stood up. She was a bit taller than I was, and I could see her muscles move under her skin. She had the kind of muscle build you get from actual work, not from lifting weights or other controlled workouts. “You gonna give me the winning lotto numbers or tell me about my troubled childhood?”
I sighed and let my eyes go unfocused for a moment. I drew on the energy within me that was part of the source of all magic. Some people called it willpower, and that made some kind of sense. Both science and religion stressed how humans could make changes through acts of will and faith.
But I hated the word “willpower”. It reminded me of my few desperate stints in weight loss programs, where they told me that those last 10 pounds would drop off if I would just have the willpower to ignore the food and deny the cravings.
Denial is the problem. In my personal experience, the way to magic is through full-contact participation. You have to love and lose, hate and hope, have wonder and let yourself weep. Those experiences feed the emotional well inside your mind and soul. And those emotions are what you tap into to make magic.
Without those emotions, you make wishes without a star. Without that energy, the most profound spell is nothing more than a rhyming pentameter chanted in the darkness.
I tapped into that energy now, bringing up the memories of the first time I was overjoyed and shocked at being able to see auras. I let that feeling wash over me, fueling my second-sight. I looked for what her energy was telling me by way of random thoughts, images and impressions, ideas flickering through my mind.
“You are a warrior,” I said, verbalizing what I saw. “But not one for an earthly kingdom. Not too fond of the Christian stuff either. You are more of a kickin' ass and takin' names type, answering only to one who embodies honor, sacrifice and wisdom.”
Mercy stared hard at me, and Joseph took advantage of her distraction to take her hand. He stared at her palm for a moment. “Odd. You have no past lives, but this isn’t your first incarnation. What is you right now is all of your experiences, and you are totally aware of them.”
Mercy jerked her hand away and stared at each of us for several minutes. I felt like she was trying to see my soul. I glanced at Joseph and, by the slight frown on his face, he'd experienced the same feeling.
“Fine, you've got some mojo.” Mercy turned and tossed the rest of the bag of apples to the kids. She nodded to Hound Dog and, turning back to us, jerked her head up towards the road going over the bridge. “Let's talk.”
I glanced at Joseph and shrugged. I followed Mercy up the embankment with Joseph trailing behind. Mercy climbed the short, steep path with goat-like skill and turned to wait for us to catch up. She stomped her worn hiking boots several times to get the bits of grass and mud off of them.
“So, you wanna know how deep Muriel is?” Mercy said. She paused while Joseph lit a cigarette. I shook my head when he offered. “Well, it's real deep. And skills or not, I'm not convinced you can handle it.”
I sighed and tried not to roll my eyes. “I think that's for us to determine. We just want to find her right now.”
Mercy shrugged. “No one has seen her in a couple weeks. She and her family just up and disappeared.”
Joseph frowned. “You mean her street family?”
I rubbed an itch on my nose and thought back several years to when I had been more involved in the street culture. I'd never been homeless, but my drive to help Muriel had lead me to the edges of the complex web of support and sharing of resources that kept street kids alive despite their harsh situation.
Most street kids fell in with others around their same age, forming small, tight groups of three to six people. These “families” were extremely loyal to each other, sharing food, money and shelter with each other. Often, one or two in the group took the lead, guiding the others using experience, wisdom and even charisma. These “parents” were usually the ones who collected and distributed resources, creating more buying power, organizing the time and skills of the family, and ensuring that none of the group was left out.
Rarely, a family's parents would use their influence to abuse their family, pimping out the family members or demanding participation in risky criminal activities, such as breaking-and-entering or holding up convenience stores.
Muriel's connection to me had given her family an advantage, since I could often spare a little cash or food to help her out. Because of this, Muriel had become the “mom” of her family, which gave her opinion in family decisions additional weight.
If Muriel had gotten into a cult, she very well could have pulled her entire family into it. But, just because a parent made a decision that the family obeyed didn't mean that the whole family agreed with it.
I turned my attention back to Mercy.
“Is anyone from Muriel's family still showing up from time to time?” I asked.
Mercy pursed her lips. “Well, I heard from Hallie that she heard from Big Ralph that he saw Jada over at the city mission’s soup kitchen last week.”
I scowled, trying to mentally follow the connections. “So, where's Big Ralph now?”
“Probably at the city mission,” Mercy said. “He got a job there doing some clean-up before and after supper. He keeps an eye on some of the others and keeps them from giving everything to the thumpers.”
I nodded. The city mission offered one free meal each day, complete with conversion attempts by the thumpers, as in bible-thumpers. Most street kids blew it off as the price of admission, but some got sucked in and ended up caving to the evangelicals' pressure to tithe most of their money to a church or charity.
The little bit of cash that those kids had was from low-wage or under the table jobs, or from long days of panhandling. It pissed me off because too many of those kids got into dangerous situations to earn so little. Some punk high-schoolers liked to make a game out of beating on panhandlers and buskers - people who performed on the streets for donations. People professing to be helping, but taking homeless kids' money - that kind of hypocrisy got my blood boiling.Joseph stubbed out his most recent smoke, crushing it on the gravel. “Well, if we head out now, we can catch this Big Ralph before all the good Christians get there.”