This story is by Karen L Russell and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Lightning slashes the sky, allowing beams of light to penetrate the oppressive darkness of a moonless night. The torrential rain is pounding against the ground, forming puddles and small lakes faster than the earth can absorb this needed nourishment. The sound of thunder echoing among the buildings. Loud and forceful enough to imitate minor explosions as it rattles dwellings in need of repair.
Humans and animals inside plan to stay out of the storm. The others outside are eager to make their way indoors, out of the cold and wet. The unluckiest, as in homeless, scramble to locate anyplace undercover that’ll offer protection from the weather.
“Mom, feels safe to settle here for the night.”
“Cool tonight. It’ll keep us dry. Joey, get your friend Katy. If we sleep close, we’ll be warm enough. In the morning, I’ll search for breakfast.”
Joey closes his eyes and falls asleep wishing he’ll dream of a better place. A house with his own bed, one for Katy, and his mom, too. Never to worry about being cold or hot. A constant supply of food and clean water, no more garbage cans and muddy water. He can imagine himself with his buddy, running through the tall, lush grass and a field of flowers to stimulate your senses, playing together. Climbing a tree higher and higher until mom tells him to come down and later, he and Katy will lie around and enjoy the sun, relax and do it all over. As the storm rages on through the night, his body snuggles closer to his family as he dreams of happier places.
The morning sun rises into a clear sky, leaning towards a drier, warmer day. Joey wakes to discover they aren’t the only ones to seek shelter in this run-down building. He notices a few stares, but most keep to themselves and their own business. All for the best. Become involved with the wrong type will land you in a heap of trouble.
“Mom, we can head out. The alley looks clear,” says Joey. “Maybe we’ll have luck today. I’m awful hungry.”
“No worries, we always make do,” says his mom.
“I’m hungry. The hungriest. There’s a growl in my belly,” Katy says as she licks her lips.
Joey bumps against her shoulder with a light tap. “With all your agitated energy and repeating everything twice. It’s no wonder you’re starving.”
“I don’t say everything twice. Do I? I’ll try not to.”
They head out right after sunrise, searching out their first meal of the day. Diving through trash cans and dumpsters in back alleys. A hope for something not spoiled. Joey climbs out of one with day old pizza.
“Look what I found. Still has some pepperoni on it. Doesn’t smell bad. Enough for the three of us. Tastes alright. Eat fast before we’re chased out of here, or worse.”
“I don’t want to think about the worse part. Remember the baddest part last time? My leg is still sore. A little sore,” says Katy. She shakes it, to emphasize her point.
All beings in the same situation spend the greater portion of each day wandering the streets and alleys of the city. A never-ending search for a temporary home and a meal. To most observers, they are invisible. A component of daily life in a big metropolis. The destitute ignored by most, looked down upon by the majority.
Joey discovers a modest building away from the central traffic flow, with enough of it still intact. A corner on the second floor, out of the mainstream of activity and peering eyes, is suitable to provide them refuge for a couple of days, allowing his mother and Katy the needed rest. The next task is finding food for the three of them, since their luck ran out early in the day.
“Mom, Katy, I’m heading out to locate something to eat. Be back before you know it. It’s night now. No one will even notice,” says Joey.
“I’m going with you,” says Katy. “I can help. Help keep watch. I’m a great watcher.”
“Alright. Calm down and be quiet. We don’t want those towering beings heaving stuff at us again. We need to travel quick and blend in. No noise.”
“I’ll be quiet. Quiet as a mouse. I’m not afraid of anything.”
“Uh-huh. Stay in the shadows.”
The nighttime adventure takes longer than usual but reaps its reward with a bag of two-day-old burgers and fries. Plus, a couple of fish sandwiches. Enough for dinner, breakfast, and perhaps lunch. A veritable feast. Satisfied with full bellies, they sleep near to each other to conserve warmth. Katy finds a partial piece of blanket to help for the night. No dreams tonight, just the harsh reality of the circumstances of their lives.
Three days to spend recuperating, knowing his mother needs the time to rest. Katy and he scrounge enough food to share with a couple of the other occupants in their dwelling. They return the good will with a thank you and a few bits of information from other dwellers.
“Mom, how are you feeling? Better I hope.”
“Rested son.” She stands, stretches, yawns, and kisses him.
“We should leave here this morning. I overheard talk about the place being cleared out today,” says Joey.
Katy pops up her head and starts pacing. “They’re not sending the big truck, are they, Joey? Are they?”
“Relax. Calm down. We stick close and we’ll be okay,” says Joey.
“Alright. I know I’m jittery when I’m nervous. Stay together. We’ll stay together. Good idea.”
The three exit and venture into the warmth and light of the morning sun. More follow as the sky grows brighter. Joey looks first to insure there’s nobody lurking around the corner.
Katy sniffs the air. “Food. My mouth is watering. The aroma is wonderful. Come on.”
“Katy, hold on. It might be a trap,” says Joey.
“Stay with her, Joey. Slow down, Katy, wait,” his mom yells as they run forward into the alley.
“See, no one around,” says Katy. “Told you. Told ya.”
“Don’t like it.” Looking around, the hair on the back of Joey’s neck stands up.
Before they realize, out of the shadows, pairs of large hands snatch the three. The struggle to free themselves is futile. In an instant, they find themselves in a metal crate.
“Let go. We have done nothing. Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? Mom, Katy, you, okay? Where are you taking us?”
“Hey little guy. It’s better if you don’t fight,” says a low voice behind him.
The following hours are confusing and frightening. They bring them into a room, bathe them, stick them with sharp objects, while disoriented and hurting, put in another room.
“We’re all here and there’s food, water, and a bed to sleep in,” says his mom.
“I’ll get us out of here,” says Joey.
The routine is identical over the next week. The tall ones continue to supply them with the necessities. Rooms on each side and across have similar beings. Desperation is setting in. Being homeless is tough, but better than being trapped here.
“Do any of you know if there’s a way out?” asks Joey.
“Keep your head down. Don’t cause a ruckus. Someone will come for you,” says a voice from down the hall.
“Thanks, whoever you are,” Joey sighs to himself and sits.
An eternity passes, or so it seems. The door opens, and two tall ones scoop the three up and into another smaller box into a vehicle, next the ride for what seems forever. Joey peers out the window as they slow down. He can’t believe his eyes.
The car pulls into a driveway with a house as huge as he imagined. Everything in the dream is here. In his mind, he’s already racing through the field, tracking butterflies and bugs, sprawling in the sunlight, taking a lengthy afternoon nap. No responsibilities, no worries.
The tall being, a human, in the truck, carries them inside. She shows them their beds, food bowls filled to the brim. The fresh water feels cool on the tongue.
“Joey, you think this is our home? I’ve heard of this before. You know, heard about things like this. Like this kind of thing,” says Katy. Her excitement is radiating through her body, causing her to shake.
The woman gathers her up and rubs the small body. She gives a kiss on Katy’s head. “That’s a good chihuahua. Don’t shiver. You’re fine.” Joey’s next. “You’re a very handsome cat.” She strokes him down his back as he purrs. “You must be his mom. Exquisite. I’ll figure out names which suits all of you. I think we’ll be happy here.”
“Joey, you think it’s okay to have two names? That she doesn’t know our real name?”
“Yeah Katy, It’s okay.”
As the sun sets on the horizon, they’re together on the couch and Joey smiles to himself. He realizes this is his happily ever after…