“Um, excuse us, pardon us,” I said. We edged around the screaming homeless men. The paved pathway we were on was narrow, with trees hemming us in on either side. We tried to avoid touching the men. We didn’t want to alarm them any more than they were already alarmed. Plus, they smelled so bad. We could smell their homelessness, frankly. They smelled unwashed, and they smelled like excitement and fear and anger and sickness, both mental and physical sickness.
Nobody ever likes touching homeless people, as horrible as that sounds to say. It’s just almost impossible to stifle this primal impulse that screams to you that if homelessness isn’t a contagious condition, body lice are. I wondered how long it would be before the whole city smelled homeless. We wouldn’t know who to cast out and avoid, when we all smelled homeless.
The homeless men started grabbing at us as we tried to pass them. The shorter one snatched the pet carrier with Bethel inside, but he released it instantly when the bag erupted into a volley of barks. We took that instant of confusion to speed past them. We all simultaneously broke into the rapid New Yorker run/walk that said, “We aren’t afraid, we are just very, very busy and we need to move on immediately.” The homeless men hurled a little more jibberish at us, even as we left them behind.
“That went well,” Moira panted. “Bethel saved us from two bums. That really boosts my confidence that we can break up a city-wide slavery ring.”
“It actually does boost mine,” I said. “We got away, didn’t we?”
The park got darker as we got further in. Central Park isn’t really that enormous, but I had a knack for getting lost in it in broad daylight. Once the orderly street grid that made up most of the city was taken away from me, I was prone to wandering around like a lost kitten. I was famous among my friends for not being able to find anything in the park, including the 55 acre Great Lawn.
The darkness was making me sweat a sweat of lostness to come. I shouldn’t have worried, however. I looked to my left and saw a glow in the Northern sky. It was coming from the middle of the park. Either Simon and Garfunkel had returned to serenade New Yorkers for free again or I was seeing the Burning Pit. I was willing to bet money that I was seeing the Burning Pit.
We heard screaming babble behind us, and we knew our pursuer had encountered our homeless friends. “Damn, those guys are actually useful to us,” Mike whispered.
“Get off the path,” I hissed. “Maybe he’ll pass us and we can follow him, for a while.”
Mike and Moira dived into bushes on one side of the path, I ducked behind a tree on the other side. I tried not to breathe and I silently prayed that Bethel wouldn’t bark. But, I shouldn’t have worried so much. Our tail was as flustered by the babblers as we had been. It also looked like he’d gotten a harder time than we’d had, which cheered me. Without a little dog to protect him, he’d taken some damage. He held his cheek as he quickly limped up the path, intent on escaping from his attackers, his mind off the people he’d been carefully pursuing mere minutes ago.
As he limped past me, I saw that our pursuer was indeed Jonathan. My heart sank at the confirmation. I’d so hoped that Jonathan really had gone innocently home to his parents. I’d so hoped that I’d been wrong about him being a creepy presence that we couldn’t trust. At least he was in front of us instead of behind us, now. At least we had that going for us.
We emerged from our hiding places when we couldn’t hear Jonathan’s loafers slapping pavement, anymore. Mike and Moira looked at me grimly. I grimly-ed them right back.
“Damn, I was hoping that it wouldn’t be Jonathan. I was betting on BJ,” Mike said. “I was going to pull his Bermuda shorts off him and throw them in a tree. He wouldn’t have gotten far bare-assed.”
I was heartened that Mike was sounding more like himself. It gave us a better chance of at least getting a little further into this insane rescue attempt. I hated that we didn’t have a plan. I hated that we didn’t know what we were facing, and I hated the fact that everybody who wasn’t an outright enemy was still going to be a danger to us. All I wanted to do was go home. Instead, I turned to follow Jonathan, with Mike and Moira at my side.