His comment stupefied me. I couldn’t have been more stunned if he had said my sweet elderly Baptist MeMaw pole-danced on Friday nights. Surely this unkempt middle-aged man standing next to me was joking or maybe living in an altered mental state. You couldn’t be too sure about anybody these days. Seven of us stood warming around this trash-can bonfire. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to stay out of sight and off the police radar. But on cold nights homeless vagrants tend to congregate by a fire, a bottle, and tall tales to keep our minds off painfully cold extremities.

Vagrants… I’ve come to hate that word and the connotations behind it. True, some live on the streets due to their own stupidity, some thanks to addictions, some struggle with mental illnesses and don’t even know they need help, and many are victims of circumstances beyond their control combined with a bad economy. I now know many homeless folks. I am here looking for my sister.

Darlene ran away from her abusive, alcoholic husband after her children were found dead. The entire family knows he did it. But she, so afraid he or the police would come after her, ran away with what little she could fit in a backpack. He never let Darlene carry spending cash, he didn’t even let her have car keys, and she lost touch with all her friends because he insisted she spend all her time with him. That was over five years ago, and most of the family has given up on ever finding her. Mom passed on before the babies, and Dad is now in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. Suffering might be the wrong word. I think he’s actually happier reliving his childhood memories and forgetting the pain and heartbreak of the present. The worst of it, next to Darlene being gone, is that her idiot husband convinced the court that Darlene did kill their ten-month-old daughter and two-and-a-half year old son, and that is why she ran away. Since he held down a good job and saved his drinking and rage for her at home, there weren’t any witnesses to defend my sister.

Even though we are in our thirties, a big brother is still supposed to look out for his kid sister. I wish Darlene confided in me sooner. I would have helped her get away and protected her little ones. Now the court issued that louse a restraining order against me, he is dating some naïve girl he met bar-hopping, and I am out in the cold pretending to be indigent on weekends and vacations in an effort to find Darlene.

Seven of us—two women, four other men, and myself—are standing around this fire as the cold wind whips our legs and backsides. I know I am here temporarily; I can’t imagine how others live this life. The man seems serious enough. He needs a bath and clean clothes like the rest, but even with a prosthetic leg and missing fingers he bears himself like one born to be a soldier. He seems sane enough.

The clues my buddy on the police department and I gathered indicate that Darlene comes here when the weather is bad. When I showed her picture earlier, after passing around a cheap bottle to wash away their personal demons, I got mixed results. The two women claimed never to have seen her. One man said he knew her and she got what she deserved. A young man, obviously with Down’s syndrome, said he knew her and that she was nice to him. The third man just grunted and looked away. The fourth man, the ex-soldier next to me, muttered those shocking words that almost knocked me off my feet. He now helped me to a packing crate by a nearby trash dumpster to sit down. As we moved away from the group and the fire, his military rigidity softened and his look expressed sympathy.

“Yeah, man, you heard me right,” he said, after seeing my reaction and the disbelief on my face. “She was here less than two weeks ago. So upset she wouldn’t eat or drink or even talk. I seen her plenty of times before. Some gang-bangers were giving her a hard time so me and another brother stepped in. We got her safe, then she started to wail and carry on. ‘Should have let them kill me,’ she cried. Said she deserved it. She was sober, yet out of her mind. I tried to talk sense to her. Nothing I said helped. She took off. Came back a couple hours later high as Mt. Everest. Before we could get her help, she OD’d. Last thing she said was ‘Forgive me. I couldn’t let my son turn out like his dad, and I couldn’t let my baby live like me.’”

 ©2013 by Kathryn McClatchy—All Rights Reserved