Title: Cardboard Boxes
Summary: a series of vignettes involving cardboard boxes and Michaelangelo.
Credits: sss979. I couldn't make sense without you (but I need to watch the tenses).
Disclaimer: Sing along with the bouncing ball. I do not own these characters. I make no money from this.
It all started with a cardboard box. A t.v. box that caught my eye as we crept through the alley on our way to the dumpster. We were practicing staying in the shadows cast by the buildings, and moving in silence. It wasn't often that Sensei would let us come out of the sewers, but we had business to take care of on this night. Foraging: the gathering part of hunting and gathering. We were hungry, and Sensei had taken us to the surface to help him search for food.
Behind this dumpster sat a huge cardboard box turned on it's side. The black lettering read 'RCA'. A blue tarp hung over the open part held in place by strips of a wide grey tape, and I felt that stirring of curiosity. I had to look inside. As I reached out to pull the makeshift curtain away, a clawed and furry hand grasped my wrist and pulled me back.
I blinked up at him, confused. "What, sensei? It's just a box."
Sensei let go of my wrist, and leaned on his staff. "This is someone's home, Michaelangelo," he explained in his usual patient manner. His ears were twitching, though, checking to make sure we were safe here. "You must leave it be."
Why would anyone live in a box? I didn't understand. Was it someone like us? Someone who needed to hide? Beyond Master Splinter, I could see that Don and Leo had climbed into the dumpster and were searching. Raph kept watch, his hands on his sais as he scanned the area. We had finally received permission at the age of 12 to carry our weapons, and I think Raph was actually sleeping with his.
"Hurry, my sons," Sensei urged those out of sight. Leo popped up over the side, and revealed a plastic bag in his hand. Splinter reached up and grabbed it. Something inside clanked heavily, revealing the contents to be canned goods. Leo vanished again, and then Don appeared to slide over the side of the dumpster and land on the concrete with a light thump. He, too, had a plastic bag full of stuff.
"Now, quickly, we must vanish," Sensei instructed. Leo dived out of the dumpster and executed a cool flip into a crouch. We hugged the brick walls again as we traveled back down the alley, following our Sensei. I lingered a moment and studied the box. Someone lived there. And I thought I had it rough.
"Mikey, would you hurry up!"
Raphael sneered at me over his shoulder. I gritted my teeth, and struggled against the desire to snarl at him. I knew what would happen if I did. Raphael would knock me flat. While it would be nice to lie down, I could think of more comfortable locations than this rain-slicked, cold street.
I was tired. Exhausted and sore and ready to drop. We were fresh from another battle, and my right shoulder ached where I'd been hit with a staff. Another round with the Foot on top of a warehouse near the docks. There were only about forty of them, but we'd taken some pounding. It had been the usual wrong place and wrong time situation, with my brothers and I winding up in the middle of their new territory. I wasn't incapacitated or anything, but it hurt in a way that was constant and distracting. I'd never been badly injured in 17 years, and I could be glad about that.
"Mikey." I glanced up at Leo. He was poised in a daring crouch on the railing of a fire escape, the tails of his mask flapping madly in the wind. He looked at the street behind us and checked for anyone following. "Do you need us to stop -- give you a break?" Leo's tone was laced with concern, and I started to shake my head. I didn't want to slow us down.
"Aw, does Mikey have a boo-boo." Raphael's low-voiced taunt drew my eyes to my red-masked brother. Jerking my chain, as usual. Just because he didn't have so much as a scratch ...
Don stood just beyond Raph's right shoulder. He was leaning on his bo, looking about as exhausted as I felt. He had a bloody scrape on his left arm from a fall over the edge of the roof. It had been a near thing, but Leo had caught Don's arm and kept him from dropping to the pavement.
"You okay, Mike?" Don nodded towards my shoulder significantly.
A bitter gust slipped through the alley, biting at my skin and leaving an icy chill in its wake. Even if I wasn't okay, I sure as hell didn't want to stay here... "I'm fine, guys," I assured, casting another brief glare at Raph. "Let's just get home."
Without another word, Leo stood and flipped up to the next level of the fire escape. Don leapt up and climbed on to the first level, and Raph had just grabbed the ladder when a groan behind us caused him to dive back off. Both of us had our weapons in hand before he'd even hit the pavement.
My eyes narrowed at the darkness around me, scanning for movement. Beside me, I heard Raphael's low growl as we waited. His weapons were still dripping with slowly-drying blood, but he knew as well as I did that the battle might not be over yet. We might have easily been followed this far; we weren't moving very fast. Backs to the ladder, we waited, eyes moving over the grey-green bulk of a dumpster, and slowly over to a rattling cardboard box beside it. I could feel something inside of me let down slowly. The Foot had better places to hide for an ambush than in a cardboard box. Still, I stepped forward carefully. There was a huge box, once the container of a dishwasher, sitting there. The sound came again from inside there, only this time it was followed by a rasping cough.
I bent down, and lifted the flap with my folded 'chucks. Inside lay a mound of coats and blankets that reeked of alcohol. I reared back at the stench, and the coughing came again.
"Come on, Mikey." Raph's voice was a combination of sad and irritated . "It's just a homeless guy."
Raph turned back to the fire escape, but my gaze flickered back to the box. "I think he's sick," I protested, watching out of the corner of my eye as Raph thrust his sais into his belt. He turned back to me, eyes piercing. The tension in his stance told me I was about to get an argument.
"What's the hold up?" Don asked from just above us. He was hanging over the railing of the fire escape, looking down at us.
"There's a guy in the box," I pointed. "I think he's sick or something."
The words were barely out of my mouth, when Raphael snorted in disgust. "'Or something'. Like being drunk off his ass?"
Don landed next to me with a soft thud, and I watched as he took a quick look inside the box. The cough came again.
"That sounds bad," Don observed, leaning away from the smell emanating from the man under the pile of clothing. "Could be pneumonia."
Leo was climbing down now, and Raphael was glaring at me like he wanted to pound me.
"We need to take him to the hospital," Don continued, looking to Leo, now, for a decision.
"No way!" Raph's eyes went wide at the suggestion, and he spun to address Leo, too. "How the fuck would we even get him there!"
"We carry him," I said. All eyes turned to me. Don was nodding, Leo looked resigned, and Raph ... well, Raph still looked like he was going to pound me.
"You and Don carry him," Leo sighed. "Raph and I will cover you. We're a good mile from the nearest hospital."
Raphael opened his mouth to protest, but snapped it shut again with a low growl. Yup, I was in for a beating later on... I looked to Don for support, but he didn't look terribly pleased, either. I understood why. Because he was sick didn't necessarily mean he was blind... But if he was as sick as he sounded - and Don had mentioned pneumonia - he could be dying. Surely he'd be no threat to the ones who saved his life.
I tucked my 'chucks back into my belt, and bent over to reach into the box. I dug around in the blankets, holding my breath, until I found what felt like a pair of feet. As gently as I could, I pulled the guy out of the box. He didn't resist, or make a sound. My guess was that he was unconscious. We could be so lucky... When I had him about half-way out, Don moved around and wrestled the top half out.
He wasn't completely unconscious, but he wasn't exactly "with it" either. There was no fight in the homeless man at all. Aside from groans and coughs, he didn't protest the handling. We pushed off a lot of the blankets and stuff covering him. Underneath was a small, thin, wiry man with a gray beard, and filthy white hair. His clothes were an indeterminate color punctuated with stains and dirt. His eyes half-opened only briefly, then rolled back as his head lolled to the side.
Don caught the man under the shoulders, and winced. "He's burning up with fever. We need to hurry." I lifted the man under his knees, and we headed down the alley at a jog. Any one of us could have carried such a light load alone, but for speed it was better to share the weight.
It was a crazy trip. We had to dart into alleys, stopping to hide as cars sped by. It took nearly an hour for us to travel the distance. We didn't run into many pedestrians, but on a night like this, I wasn't surprised. It was too miserable to be out walking around.
I was never so relieved to see that glowing blue cross in front of the Good Samaritan Hospital.
"How are we going to do this? Can't exactly just walk in," I panted as we paused in an alley across the street. An ambulance, lights on, but sirens off, cruised by.
Peering out from the shadows where we were hiding, Leo examined the situation. He didn't look very happy. Minutes passed as traffic went in and out. Finally, there was a lull.
"Now," Leo ordered, and we rushed to the emergency entrance. Don and I set the guy down as quickly, and carefully, as we could before we dived for the nearest shadows. We could hear an ambulance coming up, sirens blaring.
Leo and I crouched together, just out of sight beside a soda machine. Raphael was around the side of the building, and Don had swung himself up onto the roof over the entrance. We could hear the EMTs shouting as they brought a second, unexpected patient in; they had found our homeless guy.
During the next break in the commotion, we slipped away.
I leaned against the brick in a familiar alley, rubbing my shoulder. Leo was watching the street. We would be moving out to the manhole soon, and then it would be a fairly short walk home from here. Leo gave the nod, and we hustled out into the quiet intersection. Don pulled the cover up, and started down. Leo was next. I was squatting down, getting ready to get onto the ladder. I was totally unprepared for the smack to the head. I nearly fell into the hole. I glanced around to see Raph standing behind me, a smirk on his face.
"That's for making us late," Raph chastised. Then he rubbed my head where he'd hit it. "What are we going to do about your hero complex, Mikey?"
Everything and nothing changes. The neighborhood looked the same. Maybe a little more rundown. I was leaning over the ledge of a rooftop, looking down into the space between two buildings. I couldn't believe I was actually feeling nostalgic about a dumpster.
Right here, behind this pizza shop, we used to dig in the garbage for food. We were doing a little better now. We had a better home in an older part of the sewer. April often brought us groceries. Leo and Raph hadn't tried to kill each other in weeks. The Foot clan had backed off. Life was good.
My eyes were drawn to the cardboard box sitting in the shadow of the dumpster. But nothing ever changes... The trash still smelled, and piled up. And the people ... the human beings were still living here in this dark chasm between two buildings.
A girl crawled out of the box on hands and knees, and rose to her feet. And everything changes. She was a far cry from the guy we took to the hospital from this alley three years ago. She looked about 14-years-old, thin, faded and ratty jeans, a hooded sweatshirt that might have once been blue. Dark hair that could use a comb mostly obscured her pale face.
I could feel it. That thing rising inside my chest. That pressure near to pain that Raph always says makes me a sap, that Splinter refers to as empathy, and Leo calls my sense of justice.
Staying where I was, I studied the girl as she dragged an old, but serviceable sleeping bag out of the box. She gave it a good shake, then put it back inside. Next, she pulled out a backpack, and from inside she retrieved one of those little cups of pudding. Daintily, she ate the contents using her finger, before throwing the empty cup into the dumpster. She studied the contents of the dumpster for a while, hanging over the edge to reach inside. She pulled out a black baseball cap, and tried it on for size.
She headed out onto the street, and I climbed down the fire escape to travel home.
"Don't get involved."
That was Don's advice when I told him about the girl. Then he turned back to his tools and wires and gadgets muttering about how there are social services in this city: shelters and food shelf programs to help stray humans.
But she was a young girl, and I was not as naive as I looked. I knew what could happen to her on the street. I'd been watching over her, and I tried to leave things for her. A scarf and gloves I found, a bag of non-perishable food, and a tarp to put over her box. It would keep the rain out. I knew it was probably a waste of time, but I wanted to help. I had to help. And this particular night, I was glad I ignored Don.
There were two men down there with her. One of them was rummaging around in her box, dragging items out and inspecting them in the light thrown from a nearby window. The other guy -- my hands gripped my weapons where they were tucked in my belt -- the other guy had her pinned up against the wall. He was holding her up by her shirt, and the toes of her tennis shoes were barely scraping the pavement. She wasn't screaming, but only because she couldn't. The man holding her had a hand over her mouth, and it covered the entire lower half of her face. Above it, her eyes were wide with terror.
She saw me, as I moved down the fire escape. It wasn't dark enough here to disguise me, and I wondered if she would scream any louder if that hand wasn't over her mouth. At that moment, I wasn't so sure I cared. I made no sound, and the men didn't turn.
The guy holding her against the wall went down first. It was easy, and he barely made a sound as he slithered to the concrete. The girl dropped to her feet, but she kept her back pressed to the brick as I took down the other one. Surprisingly enough, she didn't scream. In seconds, it was over, and I dragged the two men to the street, and rolled them onto the sidewalk.
She didn't move. I kept my distance, instead offering what I hoped was a reassuring smile before I leapt to the fire escape.
Her shout drew me back, and I looked over my shoulder to see her stepping away from the wall, hand raised toward me. I released the bar of the fire escape, and fell to alley floor again.
"I just ... I ... um ...," she stammered, looking at me in quick glances. "Thank you," she managed at last.
"Hey, no problem." She was trying very hard not to stare at me. I didn't know if it was out of politeness or fear.
"What ... what are you?" She took a couple of steps forward, then stopped.
"I'm Mike," I answered. Telling her who I am is a lot easier than explaining to her what I am. "You are...?"
That seemed to fluster her, and for a moment all she could do was stare at me openmouthed. Finally, she found a way to speak again. "I'm ... I'm Tara."
"Nice to meet you, Tara. Be careful, okay?" I leapt for the fire escape again, and this time she didn't stop me. I climbed for the roof, and when I reached it, I looked back down to see her straining to see me in the dark.
Tara liked bread.
I brought her a whole loaf of white bread, and I thought for a moment she was going to hug me. Instead she sat down in front of her box, and waved me over with her right hand. Her left was busy cramming a slice into her mouth.
"Heaven," she moaned when she had finished chewing. I sat down a couple of feet away, and watched her with a slight smile. She didn't seem to mind the attention, and I was fascinated.
"Take it easy," I said, when she nearly choked. Her cheeks were bulging. "I don't know the heimlich," I warned.
She reached for another piece, and I laughed, giving up on the warning. She grinned in response; bits of crust stuck in her teeth. When she had eaten her fill of the bread, she tied up the bag and tucked it away in her box.
I shifted a bit nervously. This was why I'd tried to leave earlier. Hell if I knew what to say to her... And she apparently didn't know what to say to me, either. She was looking just as uncomfortable as I was. I made a move to leave. "No, wait." I paused, and looked back at her. "I wanted to say thanks ... again."
She was relaxing a little now, and I settled in again. If she was willing to talk... I had things to talk about. "Can I ask ...?" I waved to the box behind her. It seemed like a personal question, but I was curious.
"Why I'm living life in a small room?" She tucked some hair back behind her ear, and I could see she had brown eyes. "It's the usual, long, boring story."
"Nothing good on television right now," I grinned. A little flippant, but I was trying to lighten the mood.
"I ran away. From home, you know." Tara was hesitant now, and her eyes were lowered so that she was looking at my knees. "My mom ... she hit me, and stuff." She rubbed at her nose, briefly, and I hoped she wasn't going to cry. "It seemed like a good idea to just get out."
I nodded. "Have you tried the shelters?"
She shook her head, and her face had closed into an almost angry expression. "I'm not going to a shelter."
"It would be safer ..."
"No." She wasn't even going to consider it. I could see that.
I stood up, and adjusted my mask. I had to go. If I was out too long, they'd start to worry. "I'll be back soon." I grasped the ladder, and took one more look at her over my right shoulder. "Be safe, Tara."
Someone once said that bad luck comes in threes. The first was The Foot starting up on us again. I don't know if they all went on vacation or what, but they were back. We had to be more cautious about traveling to and from the lair. We had warned April about it.
That was bad luck number two. They threatened her, and we had to go take care of that. Let's just say that there are fewer Foot soldiers on the streets tonight.
Running over the rooftops on the way back home, I suddenly stopped. Don halted two paces behind me, but Raph gave me a shove after he dodged around Don. Leo jumped back from the next rooftop.
"What's wrong?" Leo looked concerned. He scanned the rooftops around us.
"I want to go check on her."
Don groaned beside me.
"Mike, it's been a long night," Leo sighed. "You can check on her tomorrow."
I shook my head. Something was telling me to go right now and see her. It had been nearly two weeks since I had visited Tara, and I was worried. I hadn't meant to take so long, but all of our time had been taken up with patrolling, watching over April, and skirmishes with the Foot.
"I'll go myself," I mumbled. I was already turning in the other direction. "You go on ahead."
"I'll go with him." I heard Raph's offer, but I didn't wait. I was already running to leap onto the previous rooftop. From there I would go down the fire escape to cross the street.
"This isn't the time to get separated," Leo insisted. I heard his voice behind me, carrying over the rooftops, but I didn't stop. "We're all going."
With my brothers just behind me, we slipped down the fire escape like water. We crossed the street, and slid into another alley. We hugged the shadows as we have since childhood. We were almost there. We needed to cross one more street, and then we would find Tara's box.
I walked into the alley, and froze. Something was wrong here. There was a smell that didn't belong -- a smell of decay that I struggled to identify. The others had caught it, too. Don had a hand to his face, vainly trying to block out the scent of something ... dead.
Rushing forward, I found the box. There were two, thin, bare legs hanging out of it. The feet were clad in worn tennis shoes. A black plastic garbage bag covered her from the knees up to a point I could not see. She was not moving. I reached down and peeled up the plastic. It made an obscene ripping sound as it came away. I could see why, even in the dim light of the alley. Dried blood covered her upper thighs.
It took a few moments for me to realize that I was frozen in place, with the plastic still gripped in my hand. I let go, and it drifted back down, but it didn't cover her completely. I could still see ... too much. I stepped back, and turned, nearly blinded by the horrific picture that remained before my eyes. I had to grab for the brick wall of the building to hold myself up. My fingers dug into the crumbling mortar. I closed my eyes, but then I could see her again. The dried blood and pale skin and I opened my eyes to see something ... anything else. And the brick was dusty red lined by gray, but it was only before me for a moment before I was seeing her body again.
I could hear Don gagging behind me. Leo grabbed my shoulder, and I shrugged him off.
"Mike," Leo hissed. "We have to report this and get out of here."
"It's not her." It couldn't be her. She was only a little girl. I wanted to scream a negative, but those were her shoes.
"Come on, bro." Raphael caught my upper arm, but I struggled away.
"It ... it can't be ..." I choked on the denial. Strong hands gripped my arm, and I wanted to fight. I wanted to thrash and hit and strike out with my 'chucks if it would make this different. If it would make it not true, I would have beaten anyone to a pulp. I trembled, but the hands didn't let go. I jerked and tugged and snarled, but my brother just held on. He held on, and he kept me here, and I wanted out. I wanted to be free to move, because standing here with the smell of decay would convince me she was dead. She was dead, and I hadn't been here to stop it. I slumped against the wall; all the fight leaving me as reality closed in with the scent of death and the images that replayed in my mind.
"There's a phone two blocks from here. I'll make the call." A command from Leo. Raphael still held on to me, and Don looked like he was ready to jump in if I wouldn't cooperate. Leo pointed to the roof, and Raphael pulled me over to the fire escape. With less than gentle prodding, I climbed. I grasped the rungs and crept up. Before progressing further, I glanced back down. Her legs were still sticking out. I considered going back down to cover her decently, but Raphael was below me with a fierce expression on his face. His narrowed eyes said 'climb'. I moved up two more rungs, and paused again. My fingers tightened on the cold metal. I hadn't seen her face. I needed to see ... I stepped down one rung, and heard the growl below me. I swallowed, and stepped back up again. One rung at a time.
I must have been moving too slowly, because Don swung up and around to wait above me. To drag me up with his eyes and his hands and his presence. Raph pushed. Don pulled. The metal steps passed beneath my feet, but I couldn't feel them. Numb. My feet were numb. It was the cold, I guess. I wanted that cold to come inside me and freeze the twisting nausea that had come with me on the climb. I blinked. Another step passed, and Don was urging me to move faster. And I shouldn't look down, but I wanted to check and make sure it was still real. I started to turn. A brutal hand caught my head back. To look up. To concentrate on the climb.
The ledge appeared in front of me, and Don practically lifted me over and onto the roof. Raph shoved me down near the air conditioning unit. I sat, my head leaning back, and stared up. The stars seemed painfully clear above me. Bright and sharp enough to hurt. My brothers watched as Leo, on the ground, ran for the phone booth. Tara. Had it hurt? Had she screamed? My hands were wrapped around each other; my fingers twisted into painful knots. Had she died quickly? Her expression would have told me if I had looked.
Leo must have called the police, because moments later he joined us. We waited. My brothers looked out at the surrounding streets and buildings; on the lookout for danger. I stared at the sky through steadily blurring vision. The stars were starting to soften together into a haze of light. Had she cried out for help? Had she cried out for me? We waited. I could feel moisture trickling from the corners of my eyes, and over my temples. I didn't want to be fucking crying. But I didn't know what to do with it ... this crushing pressure inside my shell that made it hard to breathe. We waited. My tears dried, and I swiped at the remnants with my fists. Had she fought? Had it made any difference? I pulled a 'chuck from my belt, and held it in my hands. Had it been someone she knew? Someone I could find? We waited what felt like hours before a police cruiser parked in front of the alley. Red and blue lights washed over the concrete below.
More emergency vehicles came: another police car, followed by an ambulance. All the lights made Leo nervous. He signaled us to follow him to the next roof, and we moved away from the scene.
It irritated me, the way he followed. He knew where I was going, but he trailed me anyway. Like I didn't know he was there.
I sat on the ledge, my knees drawn up. Below was a familiar alley. A dumpster. Scattered papers and debris. Deep shadows where I could hide from just about anyone. There was a box. Right there next to the dumpster. A big cardboard box with a tarp over it. Sitting in front of it was a young man -- maybe 18-years-old. He was busy tuning an acoustic guitar.
"New tennant." I didn't jump at the comment from my unwanted companion. He settled next to me on the ledge. We watched in silence for a while as the young man made adjustments, then tried some chords.
"You can haunt this alley for the rest of your life, Mikey, but you may never find out who killed her."
I flinched. Months of searching, and I hadn't learned anything about who had killed her. I had risked questioning the humans at the nearby shelter, and the man who drove the van that came out every weekend to bring services to runaway teenagers. No one knew a damn thing about Tara's murder. It had been three lines in the depths of the paper. Jane Doe in a cardboard box. But he was right, too, the asshole. Sitting here like a gargoyle and brooding over this alley wouldn't bring me any closer to justice. Or revenge. This made me turn and study my brother.
"Raph, that's almost ... profound." I could tell from his expression that he wasn't used to sarcasm from me. I could see him deciding what to do with it. Finally, he chuckled, then rubbed my head affectionately. Asshole.
I glanced back at the alley again. The young man had stopped fiddling with the guitar. He rose to his feet, and shrugged a backpack onto his shoulders, preparing for an evening of panhandling. Would he make any money this evening? And if he didn't, then what would he try next? I frowned down at him. Did he have anything to eat? He walked to the sidewalk, and vanished from sight. Would he be safer here than Tara?
"If I'd been here ..." I didn't finish the thought. It wouldn't do any good. She's gone, and I can't reverse time.
"Come on, baby. Twenty-five for a blow job."
Some people can't be saved. Splinter told me that two years ago, when we came back to the lair after finding Tara. He said that sometimes, we just have to accept that there are evils all around us that we have no control over.
"Thirty, baby, but that's my final offer."
We could fight, and we could try to protect the people we found on the streets. But even as ninjas we have limitations.
"I might pay thirty-five for something like you, but I gotta get more for my money."
We can't be everywhere at once.
"What's the matter, bitch? You think you're too good to suck my cock?"
But this time, I'm here, in this same alley. There's a new box beside the dumpster. I think it held a chair at one point, judging by the brand name on the outside. I'm in the shadows, only feet away from the girl. She's older than some I've seen on the streets, maybe nineteen or twenty, and very pretty. Dark hair and eyes, and glowing dark skin. Her bright orange t-shirt made me smile when I first spotted it from the roof.
I'm not smiling now.
The man at the mouth of the alley is getting frustrated. She has shaken her head to the negative at every offer, even though she probably could use the money.
"Get lost, man. She already said no." My voice rang out in the confined space. Both of them jumped. The john took off, and the girl spun around to look for me.
"What ... what do you want?" She's afraid, and I can't blame her.
"This isn't a safe place to stay." I stepped back, seeking to keep her from seeing me. "There's a shelter three blocks west of here."
"Yeah?" She actually looked relieved. Maybe she'd go there. "Who are you?"
"A friend," I answered. I turned away from her and vaulted over the fence that backed the alley. "Be careful," I called over my shoulder.
Be careful. Maybe she would be. She was older, and smart enough to think about the shelter. I could check on her again tomorrow; maybe bring her a weapon if she refused to leave the alley. I could do the things I hadn't done for Tara. The things that might have saved her.
I can't save everyone.
But I can try.
A footnote on Shelters and Runaway Teens: In researching for this story, I found a great article on 'Covenant House' in New York City. ). Now, this is late 80's, but it dovetails nicely with my tale.