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Little Billy grew up alone on the streets of a city in the desert. He had no home to call his own, no parents, or family, or even friends. As a small child he played with litter he found in the streets, built a fortress around a forgotten dumpster in an abandoned alleyway, and survived on leftovers thrown into the garbage behind fastfood restaurants nearby.
There were other homeless children in the streets of the city. They all lived similar lives to Little Billy, yet nobody did anything about it. No orphanages took them in, no families or churches gave them shelter. In this place, every family fended for its own and the government programs were so limited, that the only authorities keeping order were contracted private military units.
In this city in the desert the weather seldom changed. Virtually every day was hot and sunny. Little Billy saw rain from time to time, but the brief showers were so rare, so widely spread out through the endless days of sun, that Little Billy had never bothered to count the days between, nor keep track of what day it was.
Roaming the streets one day, Little Billy accidentally bumped into a man coming around the corner of a building. The taller, greying man gracefully accepted Little Billy's humble apology before inquiring. “My good lad, how old are you?”
Little Billy cocked his head to one side at the query. He had never been asked his age before. Though he had heard the word used to describe other homeless children and passersby on the streets. He thought and realized he had no idea how old he was.
He answered truthfully and the greying man nodded thoughtfully, “Well, you are lucky aren't you? And you are surely quite young. As for me? I am getting older by the day. I think my entire head of hair must be grey by now.”
As the man spoke he ran a hand through his hair. Little Billy saw the grey strands of hair shimmer in the sunlight, as if they were fine fibers of silver. He could only nod to the old, grey-haired man and each went along on their business.
Days upon days passed and Little Billy gave no thought to his age. He never cared what time of day it was, what day of the week, or month, nor had he any clue what year it was. But he noticed one day when another boy was celebrating his birthday in the park.
A cake, more food than Little Billy usually ate in a week, lay upon the picnic table, surrounded by a cluster of youths, eagerly singing to their friend, the birthday boy. Billy saw the boy grin and blow out the candles on his cake. The birthday boy looked to Little Billy as though he must be Little Billy's senior by at least a year or two. But he gave it little thought as he waited behind the bushes for the party to end so he could search the wastebaskets for uneaten cake.
Little Billy heard a whistle sound behind him as he pulled a handful of cake from between two overturned napkins in the garbage bin. Jumping out of the trash can, he scrambled away from the picnic area as a security patroller came running across the park toward him.
“Get of there you little punk!” The authority called after him. Fortunately Little Billy was a fast runner and he easily eluded the officer, returning safely to his barricaded dumpster he used for shelter.
More days passed, identical days of heat and sun, broken only by the odd shower of rain. Little Billy had never been spoken to so angrily as when that security enforcer shouted after him. The memory stayed in his mind, but only as a vague feeling of displeasure. He did not keep track of how many days ago the incident was and eventually it faded into the back of his mind along with the other boy's birthday party.
Still, Little Billy cared nothing for birthdays. Cake was nice, but he enjoyed the many flavours to be found in the garbage bins throughout the city. One sunny day he was scrounging through a particularly full wastebasket when a passerby growled unhappily at the mess Little Billy was making all around him on the sidewalk.
“Why don't you get a job, buddy,” the stranger grunted. Little Billy was once again shocked at the way he was being treated, but, like with most things, he tried not to let it bother him. Instead of dwelling on the negative, he hurried back to the dirty streets of the rundown part of town where his shelter was located.
There in his familiar turf, Little Billy recognized most people in the community. He could recall many of the faces of his neighbourhood as far back as he could remember. He even knew a few of their names and some of them knew his. It was no surprise to the locals when Little Billy found a group of homeless children playing in the alleys and joined them. Those homeless kids had many games to pass the time. When their bellies were full and they were restless with energy, the children would play tag and hide-and-seek and a few dozen other silly games. Little Billy's favourite game was kick-the-can.
Uncounted days passed. Little Billy ate his fill in the dumpsters behind restaurants and carried on playing with the homeless children from nearby parts of his ghetto neighbourhood. Some of the children moved on to live elsewhere, others disappeared without a trace, but Little Billy would always find other kids playing when he was bored and he quickly made new friends, playing kick-the-can.
One day during an especially exciting game, Little Billy accidentally kicked the can further than he had intended. It landed with a shuddering clunk, at the feet of the owner of a local record store who was smoking a cigarette outside his door. The other children whispered and taunted Little Billy. He knew by the code of all kids, that it was his obligation to go retrieve the can if he wanted to keep playing.
With the shy, tentative approach of a child, still vaguely remembering the rude reprimands of the last two adults who had spoken to him, Little Billy timidly stepped up to the record store owner and asked, “M-May we please h-have our c-can back, Mister?”
The man squinted oddly at Little Billy, looking him up and down. Little Billy could not understand the strange look, but clenched his hands into fists and squeezed his eyes shut, preparing himself for the rude reply.
Instead the record store owner bent over and picked up the dented, hollow can, offering it to Little Billy, “Um... sure. Here you go, dude... I know I've seen you around before... What's your name?”
Unlike the last basic personal question someone had asked Little Billy, he knew the answer to this one. Since as far back as he could remember he had been identified as Little Billy. He was not sure how it had started. There was no way to remember everything from the furthest reaches of his childhood. But he knew what he had always gone by, “Little Billy,” he answered.
The record store owner raised an eyebrow and nodded slowly, “Right... Well, Little Billy... you have a good day, man.”
Little Billy nodded and smiled. He had not had a nice conversation with an adult in many days, days he had never bothered to keep track of. Not wanting to spoil the moment, he turned and resumed playing with the children. They each took turns kicking the can as far as they could, before they all chased after it and did it again. The game was extremely repetitive. Something about it pleased Little Billy. It seemed to match the world around him; constant repetition, without a change in the weather, or Little Billy's life, his whole world just an endless summer of carefree childhood.
His thoughts were wandering on the subject of his pleasant existence, playing fun games, just another one of the street kids... When he tripped over the curb along the side of the street. The fall was hard. Little Billy felt a shock of pain run up his entire body from the bottom of one leg. He found himself lying along the side of the road, his ankled twisted at an odd angle.
All the children around Little Billy scattered as he started to scream in pain. The record store owner was nearby and saw the fall. He came running over, cell phone in hand. Little Billy felt hot tears of anguish come pouring out of his eyes. He had never known pain like this. The worst he had ever suffered was the odd bruise or scratch from all his carefree playing and careless dumpster-diving. Between the agonizing pain itself and the effects it had on his vision and mental state, Little Billy was barely coherent as the record store owner called for an ambulance and waited with him as the big, bright truck arrived.
Through his tear-filled eyes, Little Billy could see the record store owner arguing with the ambulance men, both standing directly over him. Try as he might, he could not quite make out what they were saying. Words sounded muffled, as if he were listening to people talk while submerged in the pool of water in the fountain in the park. And someone was screaming very loudly. Little Billy barely registered that the screamer was himself. He was too occupied trying to listen to the argument above him.
An ambulance man said something like, “-has no health insurance... can't take him...”
Then the record store owner gestured to himself, saying something Little Billy missed. The record store owner pulled out his wallet.
The ambulance man was raising his voice in anger. Little Billy's vision was beginning to fade as he blacked out from the pain. “-only if... family member...”
Just before the darkness took him, Little Billy heard the record store owner shouting back his reply... something about, “-grandfather... for god's sake.”
Little Billy woke up in the hospital's ER. He was lying on a cot, his ankle back to its normal position, held in place by a hard plastic cast. A nurse smiled at him gently and told him the doctor would be with him shortly. Little Billy looked around to see if any of the other kids from the neighbourhood had come to visit him, or if the record store owner was around. There were other patients in beds like his, some had their curtains drawn around them, others lay back asleep, others talked with nurses, doctors and visitors at their bedsides. But Little Billy saw no one he recognized until the doctor entered his chamber, drawing the courtain behind him.
“Let's see...” The doctor began, glancing over his notes. Even with thick glasses on and a different haircut, Little Billy recognized the doctor. He had been from the old neighbourhood. They must have taken Little Billy to the nearest hospital. “It says here... that you injured yourself playing... kick-the-can...? with children in the old neighbourhood.” The doctor uttered the sentence with disapproval.
There did not seem to be a question, but still the doctor looked at Little Billy expectantly. In reply, Little Billy smiled and pointed up at the familiar face. “I know you, doctor. You used to live by me, back in that old neighbourhood.”
At this the doctor nodded and smiled sadly, “Yes... Little Billy... But that was a long time ago.”
Little Billy cocked his head and shrugged, “Was it? I don't really recall. Every day seems just about the same, don't you think?”
The doctor shook his head, eyes wide in disbelief, he scanned his notes once more before looking back at Little Billy. “Listen... the man who claimed you as his relative obviously has no relation to you-”
“I think I heard him say he was my grandfather,” Little Billy interrupted with a laugh. “Can you imagine? He hardly looked like any grandfather I've ever seen.”
No smile from the doctor, just another concerned look. “No, Little Billy, you misheard him... But that's the beside the point. I recognized you as soon as they brought you in. I helped you because I felt compelled, seeing as how you and I go back to the old neighbourhood and... well... everyone back at home has a certain, special fondness for you, Little Billy.”
The warmth and sincerity of the doctor's words touched Little Billy. He felt himself positively blushing with camaraderie. “Aw, gee, sir, that's awfully nice of you. I sure can't wait to get back to the streets to play kick-the-can with the other kids.”
Now the doctor's face fell quite sorrowful. Little Billy felt the unfamiliar icey cold of fear as the doctor sat down at the edge of his bed, meeting his eyes. “Now L-little Billy... you simply cannot play kick-the-can anymore... You're just... too old, I'm afraid.”
“I am?” Little Billy felt an odd sensation as the doctor frowed at him. The very strength seemed to drain from his body, his arms felt weak, his feet sore. His breath came only with more effort. Little Billy even felt his vision blurring, his hearing fading.
The doctor looked at Little Billy with a strange mixture of pity and disbelief, “Well yes... I understand you do not know precisely how old you are... but you must easily be in your seventies, or even eighties by now... That man who claimed to be your relative said you were his grandfather.”
Little Billy gasped through a ragged, foul-breathed mouth. He quickly looked down at his hands, once so young and pale. They were leathery and weathered down, grey-brown, wrinkled husks of his former perception. His hands leapt up to his scalp, where a full head of thick, dark hair once grew, now only a few sparse strings of white fuzz still clinging here and there.
The horror was so much that Little Billy felt his insides turn and shudder. He convulsed with the surprised of it all and had to be attended to by the doctor and nurse before he died of shock itself.
More days passed. Now Little Billy counted them. After seventeen hot days, one rainy day, followed by five more sunny days, Little Billy was released from the hospital with a cane to help him limp along, his broken ankle still held in a cast. As he staggered out of the front entrance of the hospital a little boy approached him, an inquisitive little tyke, still barely able to speak in whole sentences.
“Hey old man, just how old are you?”
Little Billy took a deep breath that pained his old, dust-filled lungs. He swallowed, feeling the small, precious gulp of saliva slide down his sandpaper throat. His eyes blinked against the glaring sunlight, his wrinkled skin slowly baking in the heat. He shook his head, solemnly and replied, “Don't ask.”