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"Hey, mister." The kid looked up at him, bright eyed. "Can I sit with ya?"
Nick ignored him in the hope that he’d go away, breathing in on his cigarette and feeling his entire body protest — there was probably a rib broken, judging by the pain.
"My name’s Ellis," he added cheerfully, as if that would help the young man change his mind.
Turning his gaze down towards the boy, Nick scowled, jaw locked and lips clamped shut around his smoke. He didn’t usually have to say anything to scare children — the look itself was enough. The shattered state of his face should have been more than enough to stop him approaching in the first place, but apparently not.
Not this time though. The child simply smiled at him and started clambering up onto the bench one-handed, the other carefully balancing his ice cream cone like an important treasure.
Nick flicked his eyes away, irritated, but silent. After waking up in a gutter somewhere in this shit hole of a town, hurting all over and with a new respect for not fucking with the wrong people — or at least doing it more carefully — he’d assessed the damage and considered himself mostly lucky. His wallet was gone, but he had a few crumpled dollars left in his back pocket, and his roll ups — a little squashed but usable, at least — so he’d trudged into the nearest public place that he wouldn’t get thrown out of or questioned in, and it happened to be the park. He’d drawn curious stares, and a single, cautious ‘are you all right?’ from the guy he’d gotten a light from, but had otherwise been unbothered when he claimed a bench and just sat, quietly. Wondering, as usual, what the fuck to do next, really, surprisingly calmly.
"What happened to your face?" Ellis piped up, unable to hold the question in any longer than the five seconds he’d sat there, swinging his legs.
The older didn’t answer. He closed his eyes and wished for the little voice to disappear. He just wanted to be alone. Like always.
"D’ya get into a fight? My ma says not to get into fights, even though my friend Keith is always scrappin’ with the kids from the street over. He says—-"
"Great." Nick finally spoke, voice almost a croak, the first thing he’d said all day. His throat felt raw.
Ellis looked over, sickly pink ice cream running onto his fingers, unnoticed. Nick glanced down at him, unnerved by the open sincerity present in his eyes, blue as a summer sky. He looked away again, quickly, sticking his rapidly dying cigarette back between his lips and dragging on it.
"Didn’t—-" Nick paused to cough, his lungs and throat burning with pain. "Didn’t your mom tell you not to talk to strangers?"
Especially ones covered in blood that can barely walk, he left unsaid. Even without the added gore he wasn’t the friendliest looking person.
"Well, sure," Ellis agreed easily, swinging a leg, "but ya gotta be nice to people who’re sad. Besides, my grandpa’s right over there, and he said I’d be okay so long as he could see me."
The kid raised his free hand and waved it in the air at a group of old men sitting around smoking pipes like the old farts they were. Nick assumed the one squinting at him especially carefully was the one in charge of the child. His jaw tensed, giving a faint, forced nod — like he needed to be accused of being some kind of child molester on top of everything else.
"Didn’t you show your ma your face? I bet she could fix it up again. My ma always does, and sometimes Keith too." Ellis turned his head back to Nick, beaming with pride.
"I don’t talk to my mom," Nick muttered instinctively, frowning when he realised what he’d let out. He made a quiet sound of irritation. Confiding in a kid now? As if he needed any more confirmation his life was an official train wreck.
"Huh?" Ellis seemed totally perplexed by the idea, like someone couldn’t possibly ever not get on with their mom. "You ain’t from around here, are ya, mister? I can tell from your voice. I’m not from here either, I’m from Savannah. Grandpa brought me with him whilst he’s visitin’ his friends.”
"No," Nick answered, slumping further into his seat and drawing the last lungful of smoke from his cigarette before stubbing it on the arm rest and flicking it away. "I’m not from here."
"Then did ya run away from home?"
"No need to sound so excited about it." The young man muttered, digging the heel of his filthy shoe into the grass. They’d been beautiful clean leather just a few days ago, expensive and nice fitting— now they were smudged and scuffed and rubbing.
"Whooaa." Ellis’ little mouth gaped open; "For real?"
Nick didn’t respond, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth, glad to still be in possession of all of his teeth.
"Man…" Ellis sighed, "I knew you were sad, but that’s even worse."
The young man didn’t bother asking how exactly the kid knew he was ‘sad’ — which he wasn’t, just for the record — but he didn’t question it; he was more concerned by fact the kid felt bold enough to talk to him in the first place, and why he wasn’t terrified of him, and why he was — in his own way — trying now to comfort him. He felt a little sickened by his state, apparently so bad some child felt the need to come and cheer him up, despite the blood on his face and shirt and hands and knees. He felt sick to his stomach that some innocent kid was even near him, let alone trying to fix him.
"Did ya fight with your friends?" The kid changed the subject again, licking the trail of melted ice cream off his hand.
Nick swallowed, a fist clenching and a tight scream of pain resounding through his battered knuckles.
"Well they’re not my friends anymore, that’s for sure," he said quietly, flexing his fingers.
"I can be your friend!" Ellis chirped, suddenly excited again.
God help your mother if you ever bring a friend like me home.
"You’re just a kid." The young man bristled despite himself.
Ellis seemed disappointed by that, and went back to his ice cream.
Nick stifled a sigh with his hand, squeezing his eyes shut. Everything hurt. Everything hurt down to his bones. Down to his heart.
"Tell you what I think," Ellis started, very seriously, like he was very grown up, and making a very profound statement, "I think that you should go home and tell your ma that you’re sorry, so that she’ll fix your face up nice and clean, and then, when I’m big in a few years, you can come back, and then we can be friends." The boy smiled again, lifting his head up to aim it at the other. "How ‘bout it?"
Nick lifted his hand to cover his eyes — it was just that the sun was bright, and it was stinging, right in the corners, that was all. He wished he had a home to go back to. He wished he hadn’t burnt every bridge before it was even fully built. He wished he didn’t keep fucking things up, over and over again. He wished the simple kindness of a child didn’t make him feel disgusted with himself, and he wished the kid had just left him alone from the start.
"Sure, kid," he whispered instead, voice breaking.