Someone was crying.
Ada stopped in her tracks. She stood still, focusing on the sound, making sure she wasn’t hearing things.
The sob came again. It was softer. Whoever was crying was clearly trying to make themselves stop. They were not doing a good job.
She tucked herself away from the busy sidewalk traffic, listening some more. It was a boy. Around her age, maybe twelve or thirteen, but it was difficult to tell. The pain in his voice made him sound younger, weaker. Her heart ached, and suddenly the errands her father sent her on were of little importance. She turned around, heading towards the location of the noise.
She couldn’t stand it. There had to be something she could do for him. A word of advice, a shoulder to cry on - she’d do anything she could.
Ada always felt like she had to help people. It was partially an obligation, yes. Growing up with a father who constantly talked about how much he helped people made her feel a bit pressured. She wanted to be like him. Everywhere she went with him, there was always someone who knew him. Thanked him for his studies, or congratulated him for his progress. She was unsure if psychology was necessarily what she’d want to pursue, but she knew she wanted to be praised like him. She wanted to make people feel better. She saw how happy it made him, and she knew it made her happy too, even if she had never been able to do anything big.
The sniffling led her into an alleyway next to an apartment building. She almost didn’t notice him at first. The boy was curled in on himself. He was scrawny, and significantly shorter than Ada was. Bruises were scattered throughout his arms, which definitely should have been covered by some kind of coat in this weather. She approached him slowly, not wanting to startle him.
“Hey-” the stranger jumped, putting his arms up defensively as he looked up at her. “Oh, I-I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to scare you.” Ada frowned, sitting across from him on the concrete. It was much easier for her to talk to him this way, but she had also noticed her father do this whenever his patients were upset. It seemed to calm them down a little if they were both on the same level. Perhaps it made them feel less small? More equal? She wasn’t exactly sure, but she knew it was working, watching the boy lower his arms and wrap them around the knees he hugged to his chest. He said nothing.
He swallowed, desperately trying to rub tears off of his cheeks. “I…” he fumbled his words. Ada could tell he was anxious, but he also seemed to struggle to know where to begin. “I’m okay. Mama’s just mad at me. That’s all.”
The young girl’s brows furrowed. “So you went to sit outside in the freezing cold?”
“Ah… no, I didn’t want to. She chased me out.”
“Chased you?!” Ada raised her voice, startling the boy again.
“Y-yeah. Yeah.” He quickly responded, avoiding eye contact as she stared at him.
“That’s not okay… does she do things like that often?” He said nothing.
“Sorry. You don’t have to explain if you don’t want to. Let’s go somewhere warm, okay?” She held out her hand to the stranger, which he hesitantly accepted, using it to help himself get up. She took note of how weak he was.
They exited the alleyway. Ada had expected him to let go of her hand eventually, but he never did, holding onto it like he was afraid to lose track of her. “What’s your name?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Emil.” She smiled. “I’m Ada.”
“Ada…” he repeated it to himself softly. “That’s pretty.”
“Aw, thanks! I was named after Ada Lovelace. Have you ever heard of her?” Emil shook his head.
“Oh, I should really tell you about her sometime. She was very smart, and good at math, and-”
She thought for a moment. “No. I’m not smart. And I’m pretty bad at math. Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. You seem smart. You’re a lot better at talking than I am.”
She giggled. “Just because I can talk to people doesn’t mean I’m smart. I prefer not to talk to people very much anyway.”
“You don’t? You went out of your way to talk to me.”
“Well, I don’t mind talking to people if I get to help them. Besides, you’re not annoying like all the other kids my age.” That brought a smile to his face.
She finally entered the small market on the corner of the shopping center, bringing Emil in with her. He visibly relaxed from the warmth the store provided.
“I have to get a few things to take home to my father to help with dinner. Do you want anything? Or! You could just come home with me! I’m sure it’d be okay. You could eat with us.”
“Mmm… no, it’s okay. Papa will come looking for me soon.”
Again, Ada seemed concerned. Emil noticed this. “... He’s much nicer to me.”
“Well, I’ll buy you something anyway. There’s some fresh bread over here. What do you think?”
“It’s really okay,” he mumbled, but the young girl didn’t listen, grabbing a loaf anyway. She let go of the hand she was holding to place the bread in it instead. “But-”
“No buts!” She exclaimed. “You’re keeping it.”
The rest of the shopping trip was uneventful. She couldn’t help but notice that Emil began eating a slice, but she wasn’t surprised. She knew he was hungry. His physical weakness went beyond a lack of muscle.
Ada left the store with a carton of eggs in one hand and a container of milk in the other. Emil followed close behind, holding the rest of the bread to his chest protectively.
“Are you sure you don’t want to have dinner with us? It’s really no big deal.”
“It’s okay. But, um…”
“What is it?”
“Do you mind coming to see me tomorrow?”
“Of course not! Same time, same place?”
When they reached the alleyway Ada had found him in, she put her groceries down and removed her coat. Emil watched, confused. “What are-”
He was silenced as the coat was placed over his shoulders. “There. Now you won’t be cold anymore.”
Emil froze. “B-But you’re going to be cold now!”
Ada shrugged. “I’m not cold. Besides, at least I have long sleeves on. You need it more than I do.”
Emil was quiet, and Ada briefly wondered if he would start crying again. He dropped the bread to the ground and enveloped her in a hug, clinging to her tightly. “Thank you,” he choked out quietly. Ada, not used to the contact, hesitantly returned it. “It’s no problem.” She ran her fingers through his hair soothingly.
After what felt like forever, Emil finally let go. Ada retrieved her groceries from the ground. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay Emil?”
He nodded. Just as she began walking away, she felt a tug at the sleeve of her shirt. She stopped and turned around, confused.
Emil nervously pressed a kiss to her cheek. Ada smiled, feeling her blood rush to her cheeks.
“Ada,” he responded from the other side of the house. “Must you yell?” He walked down the stairs to the kitchen, watching as she removed the groceries from the bags. “Where’s your coat?”
“That’s what I need to tell you about!” The young girl was beaming. She jumped up onto the counter, sitting down. “I met a boy today.”
“A boy?” he questioned, beginning to retrieve ingredients out of the cupboards. “You’re much too young for boys.”
She rolled her eyes, blushing. “It wasn’t like that! He was crying, so I helped him. I bought him some bread, and he didn’t have a coat but I have plenty, so I gave him mine. His mother is really awful to him, and-”
“Honey.” he interrupted. “You gave a stranger on the street your coat?”
Ada’s excitement faded, feeling her father’s judging eyes on her. “Well, I had been talking to him for a while…”
“Where did you even get the money to buy him bread?”
“You had given me enough extra money to buy him some. Father, he needed help.”
“You don’t even know where he came from. What if he was one of those people who pretend to be homeless?”
“He wasn’t homeless! Who would pretend to be homeless for a loaf of bread and a coat anyway?!”
“Ada. If you get it in your head that you have to help everyone that needs it, you’re going to live a miserable life.”
She went quiet at that. Tears began to form in her eyes out of frustration. “How could you say that…? You’ve always said you wanted me to help people…”
“As a job, honey. I want you to have a stable future. I don’t want you to go broke buying food for everyone you see on the streets.”
“I don’t do that!” she yelled. “Father, he was my age! What would you do if you saw someone like me crying in some alleyway, huh?! He had bruises everywhere! And he was clearly starving!”
“There’s a reason nobody stopped before you did. That’s all I’ll say.”
A beat of silence passed. Without another word, Ada hopped off of the counter and ran up the stairs, slamming the door behind her as she entered her room. She collapsed against her door, releasing the sobs she had been holding in. She hated reacting emotionally like this. It made her feel weak.
But she was so, so angry. She felt betrayed. Everything about her father that she had always looked up to felt like a facade. Did he even care about helping people?! Apparently, it was only a job to him. He probably didn’t even care about his patients. She’d always ask him about them after she’d tag along to his work, but he’d never give a clear answer. He never even seemed like he ever gave them any thought outside of his work.
If she was a psychologist, she’d never be able to do that. She couldn’t even get Emil out of her head. How could anyone not think about her patients? She had always considered herself pretty empathetic, but in this situation, she couldn’t imagine feeling any differently. Ironic, wasn’t it?
Ada finally composed herself enough to lay down on her bed. She didn’t feel like eating dinner anytime soon. She sighed, pulling out the top drawer of her nightstand, revealing a notebook and pen. She turned to a new page and began writing.
“I came across a starving boy on the street, so I bought him a loaf of bread. When I came home to ask my father for help, he refused me once again… I just don’t understand.”