Barely a month in this city, and you were already messing up.
You moved here not too long ago to continue your undergraduate studies, at a university much more prestigious (and expensive) than your old one. Your parents, in their infinite generosity and limited income, were helping you with your tuition and single living expenses, while you quickly took up a part-time job to help cover what they couldn’t. With most of your hours split between school and employment, any free time you had was spent unpacking, and the efficiency of that time was usually marred with the earlier day’s exhaustion.
The fact you’d accidentally binned your completed assignment with the combustible waste was one of many unfortunate consequences of your sleep deprivation.
Sleeves rolled up and headphones hooked firmly around your neck, you waited until sundown to make your way to the alley behind your apartment building (couldn’t have the neighbors thinking poorly of you this early on in your residence, after all). A wooden box served as your makeshift stepstool, lifting you within reach of the dumpster’s contents. You hadn’t found your flashlight yet, so your only source of illumination—aside from the amber glow of the setting sky above—was the sleek, black flip-phone you were holding between your gritted teeth. You mumbled frustrations into the plastic while you dug through the contents of the dumpster, trying to find the municipality-mandated blue plastic bag that belonged to you.
A couple of stray cats meowled as you tossed bags aside with increasingly frustrated vigor.
The voice caught you off-guard; you jumped, and the back of your head smacked into the heavy lid you were holding open. A boy about your age sat up inside the far corner of the dumpster, quiet and unnoticed. His short, dark hair was shaggy atop his head, and his eyes were half-lidded and tired, all from what you could only assume to be a hard day's work. With his gloved hands and his dust-masked face, he could’ve easily passed for a city employee, if it weren’t for the casual purple hoodie and black sweatpants giving him away as a civilian.
‘A dumpster diver?’ you thought to yourself.
He yawned, stretching his arms and shifting in place with no particular sense of urgency. He looked around himself as if he’d forgotten where he was.
“What time is it?” he asked, sounding drowsy.
“Ohrr. Erm.” You pulled the phone out of your mouth to check the clock. “Seven-thirty.”
“AM or PM?”
“Ah.” His gaze drifted to settle on you. “So, what are you doing here?”
“…that’s my line.”
“What do you mean? Isn’t it obvious this is where I belong?”
“What kind of weirdo sleeps in the garbage??”
“The same kind of weirdo who listens to music while digging through the trash when they think no one’s looking.”
“I’m not just…I--I’m looking for my homework.” (You looked flustered as you touched your headphones defensively.) “I threw it away by accident and it’s due tomorrow morning and I don’t have time to go to school early and print it off again and redo every question before class starts because I don’t have the answers saved anywhere and—”
He interrupted you with a stapled stack of papers, hanging limply from his offering hand.
It took you a moment to accept them.
The pages were a little stained on the sides, and the ink on the cover had gotten wet with god knows what, but you sighed with relief, knowing it was much better than having no assignment at all.
He didn’t respond.
At first, you decide to leave well enough alone. Rolling up your paper, you descended from your wooden stepstool and prepared to return to your apartment, grateful to have your hours of hard work returned to you. However, as you walked away, moist gravel crunching beneath your sneakers, you slowly came to the realization that the odd stranger’s act was the kindest you’d received since you arrived in this city.
“Say, um!” You spun back around to face the dumpster. “Let me treat you to lunch tomorrow.”
“Me?” the deep voice replied, echoing within metal walls. “The guy you found in the trash?”
“Well, without you, my dumb ass would’ve probably been stuck out here for hours trying to find this paper. You saved me a lot of time, the least I could do is use some of it to repay you.”
“You don’t owe me anything,” he said shortly. “I was here anyway.”
“C’mon, everyone likes free food!” (Besides, if you couldn’t get the guy in the garbage to hang out with you, all hope for proper socialization was truly lost.) “Hey, wait...you don’t actually live here, do you?”
His head popped up from the top of the bin. His arms folding along the side of the dumpster, he leaned in against it, staring at you quite intently from above his facemask.
“…are you stupid?”
You balk. A stray cat leapt out of the garbage bin and bounced off your head.
He paid no mind to your reaction. “There’s a café a few blocks away. Meet me here at two o’clock?”
‘Does he still expect me to pay for him after that…?’ you thought, before becoming acutely aware of the paper in your hands. You nodded, reluctantly. “Works for me. See you tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he said, voice flat as ever.
He returned to his diving, and you returned home.
Before you turned in for the night, you feathered through the pages of your assignment to ensure everything had been recovered.
On page four was a small correction in bright marker that wasn’t there before.
The paper wrinkled in your grasp.
‘Where the hell did he get the red pen?!’