1879, East London
Mounds of hot, steaming food. Piles of sausages. Heaps of steaks. Loads of potatoes. Crèmes and cakes abounded. Oh, where to start? Everything was so lovely! The food was so rich, and it felt so wonderful to have an entire mouthful of food to chew slowly, to savor! He grabbed a turkey leg and tore into it savagely, juice running deliciously down his chin. Next he made a mad dash for the small cakes, stuffing several into his mouth at one time. Washed down by ice cold lager. Someone was poking him in the side, but he didn't care. He grabbed two of the sausages and shoved them unceremoniously into his mouth, trying to ignore the continued jabs at his side. Finally, he couldn't stand it any more and turned to the offender and shouted, "Do you mind?!"
"As a matter of fact, I do," came the gruff reply as Fred awoke in the dingy doorway he had fallen asleep in. Fred, realizing his mistake, smiled meekly.
"Oh…good morning, officer…sir," he stammered, climbing to his feet. "I'll, er, just be leaving, hm?"
The officer smiled grimly and swatted Fred painfully in the side with his baton. "Right. And don't let me catch you again, all right?" The officer finally retreated, beaming gleefully as Fred doubled over in pain, clutching his side.
"God, what a way to start the day…" he muttered through clenched teeth, bringing himself to his full height and dusting off his torn, baggy clothes. No one said life in the worst part of London was easy.
The problem of food once again confronted him, as it did of every second of every day of his miserable life. Despite his empty stomach, Fred whistled happily, noticing for the first time in days that the sun was shining. Plus, he knew someone that might be able to give him some food.
The marketplace was always busy in the morning, housewives coming to get their daily share of food for their hungry families. Fred slipped as unnoticeably through the crowd as he could, staring wistfully at their baskets full of food. He resisted the very real urge to pluck some food out for himself, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to rob a family of their daily bread. Instead, he meandered up to a cart overflowing with fruits and vegetables, and a few loaves of bread. The cart's owner, a brawny, ruddy-faced man, was busy haggling with a wizened old woman over the price of five potatoes. Fred grabbed an apple and bit into it, eating slowly, knowing it might well be the only thing he would have to eat that day. He was looking the apple over, admiring its color, when it was suddenly grabbed from him by the ruddy-faced cart owner.
"What you think you're doing?" he roared.
"Hi George," Fred said calmly. "I was eating that."
"Without paying for it first. My cart ain't up for grabs, Fred. Where you go off doing summat like that?"
Fred smiled and played with George's shirt. "Oh, come on. We go way back, don't we mate?"
"I ain't your mate. Jus' because we grew up in the same shithole don't mean noffin'. And it certainly don't mean you can go stealin' my livelihood here."
"Its just an apple! An apple for a poor, starving mate! Come on, George," he simpered. "I won't tell no one. Its just between you and me."
George shook his head. "Drop dead, Fred."
Fred laughed loudly. "You see? We do go way back! You even remember my nickname from the orphanage! Aren't we great mates?"
"Called you that for good reason. Get lost. Or else I'll call that officer over there," he said, nodding towards the same officer that had chased Fred out of his "bed" that morning. Fred rubbed his side.
"Right, well, I'll be going then," Fred said, wandering off. Now what? he thought miserably. He walked along for a little ways, stomach rumbling. "Time to do a little work, I guess," he muttered, sliding up next to some poor unsuspecting artisan. As stealthily as he could, reached into the man's back pocket, hoping to find a wallet, but instead receiving a fist in the face which spent him sprawling to the ground. Just for good measure, the artisan kicked Fred in his already throbbing ribs, which elicited a painful yelp from Fred.
"Let that be a lesson to you, street scum," the man spat as he walked off.
Fred managed to crawl into an alleyway so as to have some privacy as he mopped the blood from his face. He managed to scrape up the courage to lift his shirt and take a look at his side, which was already turning black and blue. He sighed softly and put his shirt back down. "Don't mean any harm, really…just hungry, that's all…" he muttered to himself, face cupped in one hand. Filth surrounded him in the alleyway, and he was in too much pain to move until the sun was setting. Stomach pangs became more and more pronounced, but Fred knew it was worthless to try for food until the middle of the night, when the probability of an officer seeing him greatly diminished. Fred watched as well-dressed and well-fed people walked by him, not paying any mind to a filthy, bloody mess like himself. He had gotten so used to the internal outrage of the injustices of life that they had long just become a mournful wail deep inside of his soul. He tried to look on the bright side; it was Friday night, and that was usually when there was the most garbage outside of the restaurants. True, he wasn't the strongest nor the fastest of the street dwellers, and usually had to do with whatever was left over from their escapades. He wasn't about to challenge any of the larger men, for starving men such as they would fight to the death for a chicken leg with a scrap of meat left on it, left carelessly without a second thought by the diners.
Fred was torn from his thoughts as a child of about ten raced round the corner and threw himself to the side, panting loudly. Curious, Fred said, "All right there?"
The child, surprised, jumped up and bared his fists. "Who's there? Who's there?"
"Relax. I won't hurt you," Fred said, not moving. "I'm over here."
The kid stood there for a moment, as if deciding whether to trust Fred or not. Finally, he sank to the ground. "Got any food?"
"Got any cigs?"
"What are you doing here?" the kid asked, inching closer.
"Waiting for night to fall," Fred said truthfully. He stuck his hand out. "I'm Fred."
"Charlie," the kid said, shaking Fred's hand. "You all right, Fred?"
"Got in a few scraps today. What are you doing out here, all alone like this?"
Charlie looked all around him before speaking. "Ran away. From the orphanage."
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
"Grew up there. Everyone was always running away."
"Why not? Its bloody awful! The headmaster beat the living daylights out of one of me mates today. And whatever they serve us can't be food. I swear it isn't. Everybody I know is always trying to run away. Sometimes they don't come back you know. I'm going to be one of those. I'm getting away."
Fred cringed inwardly. Usually the little terrors didn't come back, not because they got away and lived a lovely life on the streets, but because they either died of starvation or the truant officer got ahold of them. St. Thomas' truant officers were notably brutal, and though everyone always thought they were bumbling idiots because they could never find any kids, Fred knew from experience that they found many of the kids but didn't spare their lives when punishing them. He'd seen more than one mangled child's body with the St. Thomas identification bracelet on their wrists lying in a dank alleyway. But he didn't want to tell any of this to Charlie. "Look, you stand a better chance of living in an orphanage than living out here."
Charlie settled back against the wall and began toying with his ID bracelet. "Not me. I'm smarter than the rest of them."
Fred was too exhausted to retort and began to doze. Night fell, and the air got chilly. Fred groggily perceived that Charlie was now sitting directly next to him, even leaning on him in the brisk evening.
"Fred?" Charlie whispered. "Weren't you going to go get food?" He paused. "Can…can I come? I'm afraid I…I don't know where to find food. And I'm hungry. I'm so hungry."
Charlie's whimpers were enough to stir Fred from his apathy. His side throbbed, and he had barely enough energy to scrounge for food for himself, let alone a kid, but Fred's heart told him a child shouldn't go hungry if he could help it. "All right," Fred said slowly, rising to his feet. "Come on. Let's go see what we find."
A half hour later, Fred was digging through a large dumpster outside of a local pub, finding nothing but boxes and bottles as Charlie stood eagerly outside of it, holding his jacket close to him.
"You finding anything, Fred?"
A moment later, Fred emerged triumphantly with a moldy half-loaf of bread. "Here we are!" he cried victoriously. He tore the bread in half and handed half to Charlie, who immediately tore into it as if he were a wild animal. Fred was just about to do the same when the light caught Charlie, and Fred was shocked to find how thin the child was. His clothes hung from his small frame, his cheeks were sunken and sallow, and his hands, which were veraciously tearing through the bread, were nothing but skin and bones. "Damn!" he muttered to himself as he realized his half of the bread would not, could not, be eaten by him. Not when a child that looked like Charlie stood in front of him. His stomach protested violently, but Fred found himself handing down his half of the bread to Charlie, who beamed up at him and devoured the second piece as quickly as the first.
"Come on. There's another pub that might have something a couple of blocks down," Fred said as he jumped out of the dumpster. But Charlie wasn't listening; instead, his eyes were trained on something to his right. Fred looked, too, just in time to see a large man dressed in blue running towards them.
"It's the truant officer!" Charlie cried in a terrified voice, bolting as fast as his legs could carry him. Before he even thought about it, Fred pounced on the much larger man before he could catch up with Charlie. The truant officer delivered an excruciating blow to Fred's head without hesitation, but Fred locked his hands onto the man's legs, thereby preventing him from running.
"What're you doing?!" the officer roared, delivering blow after blow on Fred, trying to lessen his grip. With his last ounce of strength, Fred dug his teeth into the officer's leg, then ran as fast as he could from the scene, the officer not far behind. Fred weaved in and out of alleyways, always just a few steps ahead of the officer, his strength fading quickly. However, he figured, every second the officer was chasing Fred it was another second Charlie had to get away. Fred couldn't bare to think of another bloody, nameless little body lying in the alleyway in the morning and kept running.
Fred ran and ran, things becoming hazy and blurred. Time seemed to slow down. He could hear incoherent shouts behind him, but he was deaf to everything to except the throbbing pain in his head and side, and the thoughts of his mission. His vision indistinct, his sense distorted, his legs quickly becoming like lead, Fred didn't realize his path crossed a busy metropolitan street. He didn't even see the carriage and four horses coming.
Everything went white for a moment. Fred came to his senses and found himself standing in a brilliantly white room, facing three figures dressed in shimmering white robes seated behind an equally as astounding desk in the shape of an obelisk. He dimly perceived that he was both without pain and without hunger. The figures, though he couldn't make them out clearly for the light, seemed to be studying him. There was nothing else in the room, and he couldn't make out where the blinding light was coming from. He was too confused to speak for a moment, instead trying to take everything in at once. What had happened? Where was he?
"Name?" boomed one of the figures.
Fred jumped back, startled at the figure's voice. "F-Fred," he stammered, not sounding like himself.
"Fred what?" another figure said, this one with a softer, more pleasant voice.
"Just Fred," Fred whispered, a lump forming in his throat. "Where am I?"
The figures all looked at one another before speaking. "You are in limbo, Fred," the third figure said in a gentle voice.
"Limbo? What do you mean?"
"Poor thing doesn't know…" whispered the softer voice to the figure sitting next to it.
"You died, Fred. Carriage accident. You're dead. Now you're in limbo," the first booming figure said as if it were all perfectly obvious.
Fred's face fell. "Dead? What do you mean?"
The third figure spoke, with a voice that sounded like a leader's. "All beings who die on Earth are sent to us. We are here to discuss your life with you and to make a judgment about what will happen to you next. We are the Powers That Be."
"So I'm dead then?" Fred said, beginning to regain some of his swagger. "Carriage accident, you said? It figures, doesn't it? A man isn't even safe in the middle of a street anymore…"
"How you died isn't important," the deep booming voice thundered. "The simple fact of the matter is, Fred, that you have lived a trite and meaningless life. You never accomplished anything of merit in your lifetime."
"Hang on!" Fred interjected.
"Its true," the soft voice said, shaking its head. "Such a pity."
"Look," Fred said, putting his hands on his hips in an obstinate manner. "Its not as if a fella was given a chance, aye? I mean, I grew up in a bloody orphanage, I'm stupid, and I was dirt poor! Its hard to be a saint in those conditions, mate. Most of the time you're just worried about where your next meal is coming from, aren't you? Or where you're going to sleep at night. You don't go walking about thinking about what you can do of merit if yer belly is empty, do you then? Top it all off no one gives a bloke a chance if his clothes ar't clean, or if he don't speak like high society. Mind, its not like I was a bad man, was I?"
"No…" the booming voice said hesitatingly, seeming to flip through some documents in front of him.
"A lot better than most of those twits wandering around down there. I admit that I stole for a living, but what's a man to do? I hadn't any choice. I wouldn't have done it if there was some sort of alternative, honest. Look, if I had been given the opportunity to do something good, I would have, all right?"
The figure with the deep voice now stood angrily, and though Fred could not see any eye sockets, he felt as if he were being pelted with a scathing gaze. He cowered a bit as the figure roared, "Every human being is given the opportunity to do good, by the simple fact that they were given life!"
"Now," the soothing authoritative voice purred, putting a hand up to the booming figure. "It is to be agreed upon, Fred, that although your life didn't produce anything of merit, it didn't occur any serious errors, either. You came out neutral."
"Is that bad?"
"Neutral means just that; neutral. But I've come across something here in my documents that can change all that. Yes, indeed," the leader figure continued, seeming to adjust some sort of spectacles on his nose. Fred swallowed hard.
"What? What is it?" he demanded in a frightened tone. "Some awful that I've forgotten that I did, is it?"
"Oh, no," the figure chuckled. "The child, immediately before your death. You did him a great service, did you not?"
Fred was taken aback. He had to think for a moment what the figure was talking about; his life seemed so distant now. "Yes…I suppose. But I did what anyone would do. He was in trouble. But it wasn't a great service. No, just a little favor, I guess."
The leader figure's internal light began to beam quite brilliantly. "No, Fred," he said in a voice that bordered on being proud. "That child was on our list immediately before you showed up. You saved him, Fred. That man would have killed him if you hadn't intervened. And it wasn't just a little favor. You deliberately put yourself in harm's way for another's well-being. That man was much bigger than you, much stronger. And yet you didn't even stop to think before acting. As you said, the child was in trouble, he needed help. There is an opportunity seized, if ever I saw one," the figure finished, looking knowingly up at the still standing figure with the booming voice.
"One good deed isn't enough to redeem an entire life," the loud figure retorted.
"But it certainly sets the template for future accomplishments." The figure paused. "I think…" the leader figure said with a lightness in his voice. "Yes, I think…"
"No," the loud figure whispered. "No, not him! Please, not him!"
"Yes, he's perfect."
"What? What are you talking about?" Fred asked, quite nervous by this time.
"Oh! What a grand idea! Oh, I do love picking Pookas!" the soft voiced figure chirped.
"'Picking Pookas'? What the bloody hell does that mean?"
"Think about it, please!" the loud figure pleaded to the leader. "We'd be dealing with him for an eternity!"
"Fred," the leader figure started. "Once in a while a special soul will come to us that shows an innate aptitude that is very much in short supply on Earth; that of unconditional friendship, love, playfulness, and most importantly the ability to deal with life's problems as they inevitably arise. You were born into blinding poverty, yet you showed yourself to be a good person throughout the whole of it. And, you chose a child to be your life's work."
"What? My life's work? What do you mean?" Fred cried, completely bewildered by this time.
"As helping the child was the only thing of merit you ever did, it was your life's work. And now, we have that 'opportunity' that you so desperately want. Fred, we have decided that we would like you to be a Pooka."
"Sort of a spirit guide, for children."
"You mean an imaginary friend? HA!"
"Its an important job, Fred. Sometimes you are the only good thing in the child's life. But if you want penance for a trite life, this is it."
"Its true," grumbled the loud figure.
Fred looked carefully at all of the figures seated in front of him. They all looked back, equally as searchingly. "I can't help but think I don't deserve this," Fred said with a small laugh. "I mean, I'm just a dirty pickpocket from the worst part of London. What's so special about me? What makes you think that I can make a child's life better?"
"Because we know that you would want all children to have a better childhood than you did," said the leader in a kind voice. "Isn't that right?"
Fred thought back to the orphanage. The stinking, overflowing lavatories. The backbreaking work, day in, day out. The crowded, uncomfortable beds. All of that he could handle. But the loneliness. The cutting words adults had dealt to them, the ones children always took to heart. If he had just had someone to tell him not to listen to that…even if that someone wasn't real…. Fred set his jaw and nodded slowly.
"All right. Let's do it."