It was during one break time that Lian caught sight of a man on the other side of the fence. His luminous jacket had caught her attention and she couldn't stop thinking about him since. She'd spotted him by a building next to the school, scrubbing graffiti off the brick wall. It didn't matter which way she looked or what she did to distract herself; her eyes would always return to him.
Only when it came to lunch time did she see him again. Luminous Jacket was sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall that he'd previously been cleaning. Her class mates hadn't noticed him and Lian hadn't bothered to point him out to them. She enjoyed investigating and there was nothing else interesting to do.
Lian walked to the side of the playground, placing her hand on the metal fence and began to work her way down, each step taking her towards Luminous Jacket. He didn't notice her until she was standing in line with him. His head tilted up at her and he huffed angrily before looking back down at the floor. Lian also noticed that the bucket that had been next to him earlier, wasn't there anymore.
"Hello." Lian said quietly.
There was no movement for a while until Luminous Jacket quickly rubbed his fingertips against his forehead before replying to her, keeping his head lowered. He seemed to be trying to hide the fact that he was talking to her at all. It was either that or he was angry at Lian for some reason.
"What do you want?" he asked roughly.
Curling her fingers around some of the metal wire, Lian forced herself to remain where she was. Right now she was going against all her mum and teachers had said about speaking to strangers.
"You seemed lonely." She said.
The man bit his lip and looked sideways. Lian tried to follow his gaze but couldn't see anything particularly interesting. He then looked up at her again and they faced each other. Lian watched as a kind smile crept onto his face as he sniffed. His hands rested on his legs and he ran his fingers over the back of his hand.
"I am actually," he raised an eyebrow "and you took it into your own hands to come and talk to me?"
Lian nodded and sat down. She pulled her long skirt over her knees and hugged them to her body.
"I've never seen you around here before."
Now at a closer range she could see that he had short light brown hair which caught onto even the gentlest of breezes. He had a very, what Lian called, sharp face; his skin stretched neatly over his cheek bones. She couldn't be sure, but had a feeling that he had quite a skinny figure underneath his dark blue hoodie. His fingers were long and bony, a bit like her dad's.
Luminous Jacket chuckled as he brought his knees up and rested his elbows on them.
"That's because I'm new around here. Won't be staying long, mind."
Neither spoke for a few moments. The man kept looking away from Lian, distracting himself. Lian found a nearby stick and began to scrape it across the concrete ground.
"What's your name?" she asked without looking up.
Luminous Jacket paused for a moment. Lian thought he wasn't going to answer her at first and held her breath as she continued scratching at the floor.
"Trent." He said eventually. "What about you?"
More silence. Lian glanced behind her to see if anyone had noticed that she was talking to Trent, especially teachers. Luckily she'd attracted no one's attention for now. She turned back to Trent to see him biting his thumb nail.
"My mum says you shouldn't bite your nails." She said, getting his attention. "She says that there's dirt under your nails and when you bite them, they go into your tummy. And make you feel ill."
Trent cocked his head at her, but continued to gnaw at the nail. He eyed it every so often, spying which bit needed altering next. Lian couldn't stop watching him.
"Your mum isn't my mum." He said out of the side of his mouth.
Before she knew it, Lian found herself smiling and looked down shyly when she realised that Trent had noticed. She rubbed the stick harder against the ground, trying not to make any obvious noises.
There were things that Lian wanted to ask the man in front of her, but she didn't know how he'd respond to her asking him. Her mum had always said that she had a way of making people feel awkward with the questions that she asked. Luckily, Trent spoke first.
"Do you know why I'm here?" he asked, "Do you know why I have to wear this jacket or why I'm cleaning this wall?"
Lian searched her mind for a possible answer but couldn't find one which felt good enough.
"It's your job?" she guessed.
Trent began to smile and shook his head. Children really had no idea.
"It's because I committed a crime. And then I got caught." He gestured to the wall behind him. "This is my punishment for what I've done wrong. This jacket warns people to watch out for me because I'm dangerous." His eyes rose to meet Lian's gaze. "Does that scare you?"
The little girl thought for a moment in silence. Trent dug his short grimy nails into the palms of his hands as he waited for her response. In any other situation with any other girl, he was sure that he would have scared them off and get into even more trouble. But Lian wasn't just any girl. She had heard him out so far. He prepared himself as she opened her mouth to speak.
"What was the crime that you committed?"
This was the question that Trent had been afraid she would ask. Yet at the same time, he was surprised that she'd asked it.
"I took part in a robbery and people were hurt." He explained.
He looked into the clear blue eyes watching him, waiting for more detail. It took him a moment to find his voice.
"I was told to hold people at gun point while the others took what we came for." He continued. "I warned them not to move or I would shoot them."
Lian's flinch was subtle but Trent caught onto it. He didn't want to carry on but the eyes were still asking for detail.
"I ended up shooting someone in the leg as they had tried to escape."
He waited for the shout of anger, the scream that would catch the attention of the teachers and make him seem like a paedophile. The names she would shout at him for doing something that terrible. However there was nothing. Lian was looking directly at him with big eyes.
"What made you do the robbery in the first place?"
Trent stiffened as he gazed back at her. It was her face that stunned him; those wondering eyes that had remained on him for the past few minutes; the mouth which always asked the questions that dug deeper into his past.
"I'm not the wealthiest of people. To an extent, I'm in debt for gambling which leaves me quite poor. I owed money and taking part in the robbery was my way to pay my debt."
The last words had left him in a flurry, trying to get rid of them as quick as possible. Saying all this to Lian made him embarrassed about how he'd become mixed into this mess, yet he hadn't cared what people had thought about him before.
Trent nodded shamefully as he hung his head.
"I know. I shouldn't have done something like that." He raised his head to the sky and clenched his eyes shut. "It was stupid-"
"No. I mean, you aren't poor."
Confusion now filled Trent's head as he looked back at Lian. She was still in the same position, a scolding expression on her face. He frowned at her.
"I don't understand." He admitted. "Course I'm poor. I have barely any money to support myself and I have no hope of getting a job."
Lian gripped what remained of the stick in her hands as she spoke.
"That doesn't mean you're poor."
"Then what's your definition of poor?" Trent asked, confident that she'd have a pathetic meaning for the word.
Feeling the pressure, Lian sat up straight and looked Trent directly in the eyes. She'd heard the mockery in his voice and felt almost hurt by it.
"You aren't poor if you have options. If you have something to improve your life then you aren't poor."
Trent now leaned forwards towards her, keeping eye contact. This was always something that children didn't understand. They didn't quite get the real world, the kinds of things that people have to do in order to survive.
"Yes but in order to have options you need money. If I want to improve my life I need money. How are you meant to survive without money? You can't buy food or buy a decent house or start a family let alone support yourself. You can't go many places or contact people. All that requires money-"
"Then you have to work for it. You have to take all the chances you get," Lian saw the look that Trent gave her, "which are legal."
Trent leaned back again, laughing out loud. Lian felt burnt by the confidence in his laugh and remained silent as he began to speak to her again.
"How am I meant to get any chances when I didn't even get a good education? I had no choice but to take part in this robbery-"
"You had the choice to say no."
Her words forced Trent to pause. How was she doing this? It was almost like she was playing with his mind. He remained quiet as she kept talking.
"My mum says that poverty is like a hole and you have to have nothing if you are at the bottom of that hole. There are two things that keep you from falling to the bottom of that hole: options and money. Only when you have none, are you really poor. You only have no money."
For a third time there was silence. Lian bit her lip and studied Trent's face for any reaction. He'd grown quiet as well as still.
"You have a smart mum." Trent mumbled quietly, but Lian could just hear him.
She fell silent, suddenly feeling that she'd gone too far and upset Trent.
"So what can I do then?" Trent asked.
He was begging now. He wanted to get out of that hole but couldn't see any boosters to help him. And he was asking a little girl to help him. Trent felt his hands grow warm and suddenly realised that he was beginning to sweat. His trial had been less daunting than this and waiting for the jury's verdict was nothing compared to waiting for Lian's. How was it even possible for him to feel so anxious about waiting for a little girl's opinion on his recent actions?
Lian thought and then addressed him.
"Use the options now available to you." She said.
Trent remained facing the floor. He shook his head, a stupid smile appearing on his face as he looked up at Lian once more. She wasn't making any sense.
"What options?" he asked but then realised that she didn't know either.
Options. What options did he have now? He had many hours ahead of him of community service to do, but then afterwards he'd have to start his life again. Lian must have meant that; use the options to start a fresh new life.
Lian watched as he began to piece things together in his head and drew back as bit as he started grinning to himself. She slowly started to smile and watched as his smile progressed into a laugh.
"Alright. I'll do it." He said to her. "Starting from now I'll do as you say. I'll make you proud of me."
This news really did make Lian happy. She didn't care about what he had done. What mattered now was that he recovered from it and didn't fall into that hole again.
She turned her head at the sound of someone approaching. A figure appeared at the corner of the building, carrying a bucket. Trent caught onto what she'd seen and instantly stood up.
"You'd better go." He said firmly.
Lian looked up at him and scrambled to her feet, discarding the stick. The tone of Trent's voice made her nervous.
"Why?" she asked, "Who's that?"
She faced Trent again to find him almost next to her. He now stood right against the fence, looking down at her.
"It's alright, he's my supervisor. He makes sure I behave myself. I don't want you getting in trouble for talking to me so go."
He indicated for her to rejoin the other pupils in the playground. Lian took another glance at the man approaching. He hadn't spotted her yet.
"Will I see you again?" she asked, not moving.
Trent's speech quickened as he moved away from her, back to the wall that he'd been cleaning.
"Probably not, but don't worry; I'll do as you said."
Even though they'd just met, Lian couldn't bring herself to leave. She'd just made friends with him and now he was making her desert him. However, she caught the twinkle in Trent's eye as he gave her a final smile.
"I'll be fine. Now go back to school and don't say a word about this to anyone." He said, "it's our secret."
That changed things. Their secret. It made a nice warm feeling settle inside Lian and she started moving away from the fence. Lian couldn't say goodbye and so turned and ran back into the main school building as the lunchtime bell rang. She didn't look back. If she did, then Trent could get in trouble and he needed the best start to his new life.
She looked for him at the end of school, but he was gone. Her mum wasn't there to collect her on time, so Lian went round to the other side of the fence and looked at the wall. The memory of Trent wouldn't fade for a long time. She was certain she'd see him again. Maybe he'd have a successful job making lots of money. Or even the new local volunteer person that everyone loved. He could, just could, end up teaching at her school. The possibilities were endless.
Her mum was right. Being poor didn't mean having no money. There was a whole different story to it that people didn't know about. Maybe she should do that when she was older, be a teacher. Or even a prison warden. If she could help Trent, then maybe there were others she could help too. And then Trent could join her and together they'd change the definition of poor.