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Working for Ray

Chapter ~ One

The tidal rush was faster that he'd expected so more than an hour had passed before Tom struggled up to the shore. His waterlogged legs dragged at first, but soon he was moving quickly to stave off the night's chill. He was further west than he'd figured, so it was less of a walk back to Wreck Beach, although that in itself didn't mean it would be either quick or painless.

Tom could feel the plastic-wrapped money pouch where he had his and Weed's identification, as well as a few hundred dollars, and he was sure it was visible against his pallid skin. Pulling his shorts from his legs as they dried in the night breeze, Tom shivered his way along the quiet streets. He needed to avoid the police so when he saw a slowly cruising car he ducked into a side street or an alley. He didn't want to be seen wearing a pair of wet shorts and barefoot. For the police, that would indicate drugs or alcohol, and he feared their intrusive concern.

It was late when Tom crossed the parking lot at UBC that led to Wreck Beach. He'd spent his time nursing his feet and worrying about Weed. If she'd disappeared, or been snatched by the police now . . .

Once he was on the beach Tom went towards the only fire that was still burning. Sleeping bags and bundles showed where most of the sleepers were, and he was just beginning to think he should have arranged a place to meet Weed when he saw her. She was sitting on a drift log and peering into the fire she must have kept going through the night. He could tell she hadn't slept, and poignantly she was rocking and holding the pathetic bundle of clothes Tom had left with her. She was wearing his suitcoat and glancing towards the steps although she wouldn't be able to see anything in the gloom. Her small frame was tense, every muscle steel taut.

"Weed," Tom hissed so he wouldn't wake anyone. Weed jumped and ran to him, her tears flooding anew. "That's OK, honey. I told you I'd come back."

Weed hugged him tight. "It's so late. I was worried someone had killed you, or the cops . . .

"I know. I'm here now and I'm not going to leave." Tom lifted the bundle from her hand and pulled out a change of clothes. While he changed Weed chattered about her day, her voice brittle with recent tears. Lisa was still gone, having left with some guy the day before, and Jamie had been talking to cops.

"We're leaving tomorrow, don't worry," Tom assured her.

"I know." Weed was definitive. "I told everyone already."

"I have a bracelet for you," Tom said.

"Really? Is it really for me?"

"An old friend gave it to me for you." Tom unwound the chain from his bundle of cash and put it around Weed's slender wrist.

"Who gave it? Does she know me?"

"Her name's Susannah. She's an old woman who lives on Commercial." Tom knew that homelessness would scarcely frighten Weed.

"Does she know me?" Weed persisted, lifting her arm in the light of the fire so the bracelet sparkled.

"Somehow she does." Tom described how Susannah had a strange awareness despite her religiosity and propensity to violence.

"She sounds nice," Weed said, yawning.

Taking the hint, Tom settled Weed in the shelter of a log. The wind was starting to rise over the Strait with the predawn. "You need to sleep, honey," he said to her and adjusted what clothing they had as blankets before he built up the fire.

"I'm not tired," she said as she collapsed into the nest he made. "I was going to stay up all night."

"I know," Tom said gently. "Now you don't need to. I'm going to sleep too."

Leaning against the log beside her Tom put an arm around her thin shoulders. She burrowed in closer and brushing back her hair he kissed her forehead.

"You came back," she said softly.

"I'll always come back for you, Weed. You're my daughter and I love you." The word fluttered in front of the fire. Tom had never said it before, except when an endearment was wrested from him at trite moments with a girlfriend. He'd certainly never meant it before.

"I love you too, Dad," Weed said dreamily, and as she drifted into sleep Tom looked at her in amazement in the flickering light. Her hair fell back over her face and she pushed her nose into his side.

"I love you," he whispered, feeling the magic on his tongue. He was consumed with worry about her, but his feelings were more than that. Although he'd initially been attracted by her need, he'd come to realize that she touched something deep in him that he'd never felt. What if I never came back? What if I just left her here like her mother did? Her stubborn refusal of reality was easy to imagine, as she sat on the log by the fire and replayed his return. She would have waited a few days, until she'd thrust the feelings from her with a fragile gaiety and pretend not to care. She'd hold the bundle at night like kids in homes do their stuffed toys, but it would represent just another in a long line of betrayals. How many to break a person? Tom wondered to himself.

Shaking his mind back to the present, he stretched his sore legs. He'd walked too many kilometres lately and his muscles were still knotted with the swim and his fight with the current. If I'd lost the fight, if my plan of suicide had actually been accomplished, however accidentally, then Weed would be alone tonight. "She's not," Tom said aloud and then looked at her to make sure he hadn't woken her. Setting aside his fantasies of failure, he decided to concentrate on their future.

How do I raise her? What can I do to make her happy? Tom asked himself, but along the shore he only heard the shifting murmur of the pebbles in the waves.

Weed was awake before Tom the next morning, and she'd organized Jamie, who'd arrived early to sell beer, to help her with washing and changing for her new role.

"Awake?" Jamie asked and helped him to his feet. "Your little girl is all excited to leave."

Tom looked to where Weed sat, freshly scrubbed and packed. "Good morning, honey." For the first time in his life the phrase had meaning.

"Morning, Dad." She threw herself into his arms. The word was awkward in Weed's mouth but Tom could see she was determined to grow into it. "We're ready," she said expectantly.

"Ready to go?" Tom started to kneel to pack.

"Ready for a haircut." Weed smiled and beckoned him towards Christine. "She cuts hair."

"I'm not really that good." Christine was sheepish.

"You're the best we have, and he needs a good cut. What do you think, Tom?" Jamie prepped a stump and the scissors.

"I could use a haircut." Tom hadn't thought about camouflage, for he needed more than clothes to make up for the body he'd left in the surf. "I'm sure you'll do a good job."

The haircut itself reminded Tom of going to the beauty school when he was a student. He couldn't afford a barber, so he'd let students experiment on him. Like them, Christine was slow and careful, and beside her, like a young apprentice, Weed handed her scissors, and when they'd progressed to shaving, a razor.

Once they were done, Tom rubbed his hand over his new disguise. He stretched and reached for his bag to bundle the clothes he'd used as a sleeping mat and blankets. "Thanks, guys," Tom said, and Christine blushed and looked down as if to gather up the hair.

Tom watched her collect her scissors. "I should pay you."

"No," Christine said. "Maybe I should do this again. I went to the hair school but dropped out. I wasn't good enough."

"Apparently you are," Tom said.

"Ready for a leave-taking?" Jamie came up smiling and when Tom glanced back he saw at least thirty of the beach community, as well as some of the usual tourists were gathered to see them off.

"This is for you." Henry shuffled up with his hat and for the first time Tom saw how bald he was.

"What?" Tom glanced into the hat and then lifted his hands as though to push it away. "You guys can't afford-I mean I have lots of money-"

"It's really for Weed," Jamie explained. "She's been here for a while, Tom." Tom started at the use of his name until he saw the explanatory smile on Weed's face. "Weed needs a good home, and the beach isn't it. She told us you're taking her away." Jamie hesitated until Tom nodded. "Then you'll need some cash."

"Don't worry, there's more where that came from," Henry added. "There's a lot more cash than there are little girls." He patted Weed awkwardly on the shoulder.

"Jesus," Tom said, and he took the hat and lifted the crumpled bills from it. "You guys are something."

Once Weed's trust account-which is how Tom thought of it-was in his pocket, he hugged Jamie while she whispered in his ear, "Take her away from here. As far away as you can get."

Tom shook some hands, watching as Weed went to each member of the idiosyncratic community, hugs here and kisses there, until they were crossing the beach towards the steps for the last time.

"We'll come back someday though, right?" Weed gestured to the people waving and looked around as if she were trying to fix the beach in her memory.

Tom nodded. His mind was on the gauntlet that was the Vancouver streets. "We should go to Crab Park. I left some money there."

"Is it a long way?"

"It doesn't matter, honey. We're going to take the bus."

With that confirmed, Weed clung to his hand and counted as they climbed, each step raising them out of a pit where, Tom realized, they'd been for a while. He felt her small hand in his, her sweaty grip jerking in the movement of his stride alongside hers. "Weed, I think you're amazing," Tom couldn't resist saying.

"I think you're amazing too." Weed swung his arm more vigorously. "Are there actually crabs in Crab Park? I don't like crabs."

"No. It's just a name. Why don't you like them?"

"People are mean to them. They move as fast as they can but some of the kids catch them and hurt them. It's better to be one on the bottom of the ocean." Weed gestured behind them. "No one can catch them there."

"That's true." At the tightening of her grip Tom followed her gaze. A police car was slowly cruising the parking lot.

"We're OK, honey. We're legal now. When you're a good citizen they don't mess with you."

"Are we good citizens?"

"You are, and I'm trying to be," Tom answered. "Remember your name: Sylvia."

"I remember." Weed held his hand as they waited by the bus loop for a crosstown that would take them to the east side.

Once they were on the bus, Tom began to think about a place to stay the night. For some reason he'd been fine with sleeping in the park a few times, and even when he was with Weed they'd stayed on the beach, but now they needed to think of her health. After a particularly cold night in Trout Park, he'd had a cough, he remembered. If Weed got sick . . .

"What are you thinking about?" Weed was beside him holding their meagre luggage. She'd insisted on being grown up and Tom had given her change so she could pay her own fare and then she'd wanted to hold their bag.

"We should get you a pack," Tom said. "You can carry your stuff then."

"I had a pack before," Weed started to say. After a pause she added, "I'd like a pack."

A young woman with a boy smiled at Tom and he felt the warmth that Weed had brought to his life.

They got off at the Broadway station and Tom felt like an imposter amongst the people he'd played bum to just a few days earlier. Now, with a haircut and a shave, he looked like a dad picking up his kid from school. Except, Tom grimaced, for the plastic bag of clothes.

Weed was a delight to watch. She walked with him and then skipped ahead to read bulletin boards, and when they passed the one Tom had used to pretend to look at apartments, it suddenly occurred to him that she'd had no breakfast. And likely, since he'd been gone the night before, no dinner either. "Have you eaten anything?"

"I had some pizza from Jamie last night."

"I'm sorry, honey. I was thinking of stuff we had to do and forgot."

"That's OK."

"Tell me whenever you're hungry," Tom demanded.

"I'm hungry." Weed laughed and pulled on his arm.

Tom looked around for a restaurant and finally settled on the Deux Soleil, another vegetarian place on the Drive. "It's expensive though." Weed looked longingly at the sliding windows that opened the tables to the air.

"We have money, and let's make an agreement."

"OK."

"Let's not be cheap about food."

"Agreed." Weed shook his hand as if she'd seen the gesture in movies from the fifties.

Once they were settled at a table and the dread-locked staff had shuffled around them with their menus and lemon-flavoured water, Tom said Weed should order.

"Anything?" she said disbelievingly.

"As long as it's healthy. And find something for me too." Tom settled into the chair and watched her bright eyes scamper over the menu, front to back and then front again.

When the waiter came back she was ready. "A veggie burger for Dad." She pointed so the waiter wouldn't mistake who she meant. "And spinach lasagna for me."

"Why lasagna?" Tom asked.

"Spinach is healthy. Popeye healthy. And you need a burger if you're going to take care of me."

Tom nodded and the waiter grinned. "Do you want a dessert, honey?"

"A piece of cake?" Weed asked tentatively. At his nod she said, "We can share."

Weed sat stiffly at first, Tom noted, perhaps trying on a kind of formality she thought the occasion demanded. She looked around the café, watching the people come in and pay and leave. She made note of the paintings on the wall and where the bathroom was. She acted as though she had to memorize everything, and Tom thought about how rare a restaurant visit must have been in her life. He knew so little about her, he thought. What was life with her mother like? Were they so poor they'd never eaten out?

"What are you thinking?" Weed asked, her brown eyes firmly on his, her brow furrowed.

"I was just wondering about your life before I adopted you." Tom decided to tell the truth. "I was thinking about your mother."

"She's gone, isn't she?"

"I don't know. I'm sorry, Weed."

"It's not your fault."

"I know. That's not why I'm sorry."

"Why?" Weed was deflecting the conversation and Tom didn't mind.

"I feel bad for you. I want you to have a great life and sometimes I think you got off to a rocky start."

"My mother couldn't help it," Weed said matter-of-factly. "She wanted to be better."

"We all do."

"What about you? Did you get off to a rocky start?"

"I don't know. My life was different than yours."

"How?"

"I don't remember much about being your age. My earliest memories seem fuzzy to me, as if they didn't happen or happened to someone else."

"Like what?"

Weed had turned the conversation but Tom didn't mind pulling his past out for examination if she wanted to wait to air her own. "I invented my grandfather. I didn't remember mine so when people at school, people around me, were talking about their grandparents, I used my friend's."

"You pretended their grandfather was yours?" The concept didn't seem unfamiliar to her and Tom wondered about that until he remembered they were father and daughter in paperwork only and traveling under assumed names.

"It sounds kind of sad now that I say it."

"I'm sorry you were sad."

"Thanks, honey. But I'm happy now and . . ." The food arrived and Tom's words were cut off by saliva as they both realized they were famished. Following Weed's dictates, they each split their food in half and then shared, explaining while they ate what was good about this dish or that.

"Your burger is messy," she told him, and he said her lasagna was too filling. Tom ate slowly to ensure that Weed had enough, finally understanding the mothers who starve so their children might eat. Once she was done he continued slowly, picking through the last of his burger, complete with its garnish and sprig of parsley, until the cake arrived.

It was large enough that the waiter had kindly provided two plates and a knife. Weed was fastidious about fairness, Tom noted, and she made sure he took his full share. Once the cake was done and they were pleasantly full, Tom sent Weed to the bathroom while he paid the bill.

He was standing by the till when she came out, and her eyes first went to the table they'd shared and he saw the loss come over her face. He almost cried out, but then she found him, and with relief flooding her face, she stumbled through the casually arranged chairs and tables.

Once they were on the street, Tom told her again that he was never going to leave her.

"I know. But stuff happens."

"Not to us. You're too important to me. You're part of me now. I could just as easily leave my arm."

"This arm?" Weed was suddenly gleeful.

"Any of them," Tom answered, thinking about how deep abandonment runs in a child. She might always see the chair empty first. "Let's get a pack for you," Tom changed the subject. "And some more clothes."

"These ones are OK." Weed put her hand in her pocket to show the fit of the trousers he'd bought her.

"I think you need a dress."

"Why?"

"There's something very middleclass about a dress. The cops might even leave us alone."

"OK." She accepted Tom's understanding of the adult world.

In the Salvation Army thrift store at the foot of Commercial and Hastings, Tom at first thought they recognized him as the one who'd bought Weed's clothes just a few days earlier. They said nothing, however, and instead made a great to-do about fitting Weed for a dress.

At first they'd wandered through the girls clothes, and Weed had no more idea than Tom what to get, but soon a young woman with a pierced eyebrow came to help.

"Aren't you a pretty girl," she said, and Tom saw Weed blush and look out the window.

"We're looking for a dress," he began abruptly.

"Special occasion?" The assistant was still looking at Weed.

"It's like a party," Weed said with a grin, and Tom couldn't help but laugh.

"In that case, let's see what we have." She led them over one more aisle and Tom leaned on the racks while Weed was catered to. It was a pleasant sight, Weed picking through and rejecting dress after dress, making a game of it, until a flower print paisley caught her eye.

"What do you think of this one, Dad?"

Tom sensed what was behind the question. "It would look great on you."

They went to the change rooms and Tom looked at the children's shoes. Weed could use new shoes too.

"Sylvia says she wants you to come see," the clerk beckoned. Tom started at the name at first, and then realised that Weed knew something about how her real name would be received.

Weed was standing in front of the change rooms looking in a mirror and then looking at Tom as he approached. She was beaming, but cautious enough not to let it show. The dress itself was cute on her, and since it was dark greens and black, it wouldn't show the dirt too much if they were caught living rough. Tom was reminded of a picture he'd seen of a child living on the streets of early 1900's London, a girl whose boots were so tattered that she'd taken them off for the photo. Standing in her bare feet, posing for the camera that was his regard, somehow Weed captured the same poignant fragility and Sam was overcome with an urge to keep her safe, to give her everything she'd been denied.

"What do you think?"

"I think you're beautiful," Tom said. "You're the most beautiful daughter a man could have. We should get you some shoes though."

"We can do that." The clerk held her hand out to Weed and they went to yet another aisle. Tom wished he could do more for Weed than treat her to a meal and some used clothes, but he swore to himself that he'd give her everything she needed as he followed them to the children's section.

Weed's new shoes were a plain brown and had good support, for Tom was thinking about all the walking they might have to do. He also picked out a light jacket for her. Taking the clerk aside for a moment, asked her where he could buy socks and underwear.

"We're not from the city and don't get in that much," Tom explained.

"There's a Bi-way right down the street." She pointed to the Second Narrows Bridge. "Stuff's pretty cheap there." She seemed to understand their situation.

While Tom paid, Weed played with her compass and the gold bracelet Susannah had given her, moving them in and out of view and checking the result in the mirror near the cashier. "Nice little girl you have there," the old woman behind the counter said. Tom glanced up to see if she were teasing, she had spoken so flatly, but then he realized as she shifted herself on the box she used as a temporary seat, that she was stating what to her was an irrefutable fact.

"She is," Tom agreed, and lifting the packs they'd bought to house their new goods he took Weed's hand and they left the store.

"Are we going to the Bi-way?" Weed asked.

"We should get you some stuff," Tom agreed.

"Socks and underwear?"

"A toothbrush and stuff too."

"This is like we're shopping. Like we're getting ready for a trip."

"Aren't we? Jamie said we should go."

"Where are we going to go?" Weed's pack bobbed on her back and one hand was clasping his and the other holding her compass.

"I don't know, honey. But we're going somewhere special." Tom hoped he could make his promise come true. In fact, he had no idea what they should do. He'd traveled so little, other than resorts and that scarcely counted, that he didn't know what the rest of Canada looked like. "Lake Okanagan is supposed to be nice."

"Where is that?"

"Not far. We could get there in a day, and then you could go swimming."

"I can't swim though. Does that mean I can't go?"

It had never occurred to Tom that Weed wouldn't be able to swim, especially after he'd seen her play near the water, but as he returned to his memories he realized he'd never seen her in the water. "I'll teach you. It'll be fun."

"You know how? Who taught you?"

"Yeah, I know how. That's how I found you," Tom said. "I swam to you last night. I'll tell you about it sometime," Tom said to the question she was already framing.

At the Bi-way they found another pleasant clerk who was more cheerful with Tom than he would have thought the job demanded, and he explained how they'd been traveling and the airline had lost their luggage. Once that was out of the way, and they were confirmed as good stable people, the clerk helped them. She picked out socks and underwear for Weed with an experience that made Tom ask finally, "You have kids?"

"Two girls," she grinned. "One ten and the other eight, like Sylvia here. You could tell?"

"It's just the way you are around her, and that you know what to get."

"Toothbrush too?"

"Toothpaste, shampoo, some soap, and I don't know, whatever else."

"Where's your mother?" The clerk addressed Weed directly.

Not hesitating a moment, the consummate actor plunged directly into her role. "She died."

"I'm sorry," the woman said helplessly, looking at Tom apologetically.

"That's OK," Tom said to placate her. "We're coping."

With their purchases weighing a little more on them in their new packs, Tom glanced at the time. "You know, honey. We could go see Enice."

"You used to date her."

"Did I tell you that?" At her nod, Tom continued, "She could get a chance to meet you and we'd have a good bed for the night and . . . figure out what we're going to do," Tom finished lamely.

"OK. As long as it's alright. Does she know about me?"

"Not yet. But we'll tell her about the adoption." Weed's grin was blinding and Tom stopped in the street to hug her.

"I'd like to meet her," Weed said finally, her eyes brimming.

"We have to pick up some money from the bank." Tom already anticipated Weed's giggle as he led her to Crab Park.

They sat in the shade on a bench until the path cleared, and Weed kept her curiosity at bay until Tom jumped to lift the brick where he kept the rest of his money. "That's your bank?" Weed whispered.

"It's on the bank of the water," Tom explained and she laughed. "OK, now that we're done with that," Tom threw William's identification into the trash as they walked down Hastings, "let's go to North Van."

Tom was just about to walk to the bridge when he recalled that they could at least take the bus. They waited outside the Husky station, keeping a weather eye open for cops but a lot of that worry was gone. When their bus came, Tom checked the time and realized they would get to Enice's about an hour after she came home from work.

When the bus dropped them at the end of her street, Tom started up the hill heavy with misgivings. What if Enice found the whole situation too strange? What if she didn't like Weed?

"It'll be fine." Weed squeezed his hand, and Tom realized he was frowning.

"We will," he said, unconvinced, but confirming his statement by their approach he let Weed go up to the door and ring the bell.

"Hi, Enice," Tom began.

"Tom?" Enice questioned, and then knelt to say hello to Weed. "What's your name, princess?"

"Sylvia," Weed answered simply.

"Well, come on in." Enice stood and backed into the door, trying to read Tom's expression. "It looks like someone has a story to tell."

Tom was halfway through the explanation about how Weed came into his life, leaving out details such as his faked death and their plan to run, when Enice interrupted, "Oh, I almost forgot. Some guy called for you." Tom tensed and Weed put her hand in his. "Some guy wanting T-shirts, or something to do with T-shirts."

"Ray?" Tom breathed again.

"Yeah, that's the name. Said he'd call back but he left a number."

"I wonder what he wants," Tom said almost to himself.

"Sounded like a job," Enice said hopefully.

"Can I?" Tom beckoned to the phone. At her gesture he called Ray. He'd never had a phone number for him before.

The Chinese voice that answered seemed to be in a restaurant, at least from the background noise, and when Ray came on he could barely hear him. Finally Ray said something in Chinese to whoever was near him and they quieted instantly.

"Ray, it's . . ." Tom wasn't sure what name to use.

"I've been trying to get a hold of you," Ray said, having in his intuitive way recognized Tom's voice. "I heard about your death and all." Tom could hear Ray's grin even through the plastic of the receiver. "Thought you could use a job."

Tom wanted to ask how Ray had heard, but he guessed it was on the news. Enice avoided local news, too depressing she said, so she wouldn't have known she had a ghost in her living room. Rather than start that conversation, Tom asked about the job.

"Tell you what," Ray said. "I'll head over if that's OK with Enice and let you know what we need."

"Sure," Tom agreed after cupping the receiver and asking Enice.

Only when he'd hung up did Tom realize that he'd not given Ray the address. Ray must have gotten it from Enice when he'd called earlier.

"That was fast." Enice was stiff. At his glance, she said, "In the bathroom. What the hell are you doing? Since when do you just get a kid off the street?" Enice was whispering but her voice was sharp.

"She was alone, Nice. What was I supposed to do? Let her die there? You know what it's like out there."

"You can't just go picking up a kid like they're a stray. Her mother left her sure, but what about social services?" Even as she spoke she saw Tom's expression and snorted. "Well, you'll have to do a better job than them."

"Do you like her?" Tom deflected.

"She's a sweetheart. And she loves you to bits. It's cute seeing you two together. But it's still a bit-" Enice changed the subject as soon as Weed came out of the bathroom. "We should get this girl of yours a bath. When's this Ray person coming?"

"Pretty soon. That's OK?"

"Sure." Enice didn't sound convinced. "You need a job now that you have a family."

Tom heard the bitterness in her voice, but he told himself to ignore it. Enice hadn't really wanted children and when he'd told her he didn't, that was before. Now his life was organized around Weed's happiness and he had no way to contact that earlier self.

Enice went to run a bath and Tom helped Weed dig the shampoo and other toiletries out of her pack. "I like carrying my own stuff," Weed declared, and Tom willingly agreed.

"She seems nice," Weed whispered. "E-nice."

"Don't let her hear you say that. I used to make that joke and she didn't like it."

"Sorry."

"It's a joke. So nothing to be sorry for."

"Are you getting a job?"

"I'm not sure what Ray is up to." Tom looked toward the window.

"We're still leaving though, right?"

"I think so." He tried to sound definitive.

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