He flipped the book closed, and showed the tattered cover. For Whom the Bell Tolls, it read. "I read it a while ago and liked it," he shrugged off self-consciousness. "Someone had left it on a bench at the bus stop."

"Whatever." The shadow dropped, and a girl landed cross-legged in front of him. "I'm Cruse. You?"

Lying on his stomach, sun in his eyes with one finger still keeping his place, he blinked up at her. A strand of brown hair peeked out from under an orange scarf that had seen better days. Big brown eyes looked down at him out of a brown face that could could have been attributed to either sun or birth. Those eyes had lived entire lifetimes; he could see them playing out like old reel-film movies on a torn and broken screen. He shook his head to break the spell and answered, "Joel."

"Joel? No. No way." Laughter played under her disbelief. "You that new to this?"

Joel looked down at his book to hide the flush of his cheeks. "Yeah, well."

Cruse's laughter stopped abruptly, and her head fell to the level of his eyes. "Hey, it's alright. We all started somewhere." She pushed herself back to upright when he lifted his eyes, drawing his gaze with her. She pulled a dingy drawstring bag into her lap, and rummaged through it. "You had anything to eat today?"

Joel shook his head.

The girl sighed and slumped, one hand in her bag. "Man, you really are just a baby, aren't you? Alright," she straightened back up and tossed him a granola bar. "Eat it slow, and drink a lot of water with it."

His stomach tightened as he looked at the bar. He took his hand out of his book and sat, turning so that he could avoid looking at her. He thought of the letter in his bag. We are please to inform you that you've been to the entering freshman class... He hadn't kept anything else. Hope had driven him to the town he'd been accepted in, but one week in, he still had no job and no address. And the frantic assistant in the admissions office had assured him that he couldn't have the financial aid paperwork forwarded to their desk. Without the aid...

"If you're that proud, you're going to die before you figure this out, and I refuse to carry that. Eat the bar."

Looking over his shoulder, Joel saw that the kind curves of her face had hardened into an ageless grief that hovered somewhere between pleading and raging.

He grabbed the bar and took a single bite, then dropped it in his lap. Her sigh of relief shamed him, bringing color back to his cheeks. He wanted to offer her something else, something more, be he didn't know what.

"Don't say thank you or anything."

Her wry tone pulled him from the maze of his own mind.

"Sorry. Thanks."

A sad smile pulled at thin, chapped lips. "'S'okay. Just pay it forward."

Watching her, he wondered suddenly how many people she'd done this for and how many of them had made the payment she required. He said nothing as she rose to her feet.

"If you have a skill, sell it cheap. See you around."

He stared after her for a long time, thinking about the two pieces of paper in his bag. An admission letter on cheap copy paper, and a cardboard sign begging for change. A skill to sell for cheap. He huffed and took another bite of the granola bar before adding it to his things and pushing up from the ground.

He stopped ten feet away, and looked back at the book he'd left on the ground. He wanted to leave it behind, to burn the letter he carried with him and forget what could have been. Instead, he walked back and picked it up, tucked it carefully into a smaller pocket in his pack.

His stomach growled, and he moved off, searching for a public water fountain.