This story is by Candace Grahl and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He jolted awake as the car alarm blared across the street. The autumn sunlight streaked across the dirty carpet illuminating the dust particles floating in its rays. Squinting, he ran his hands through his greasy hair and wiped at the crusted food around his mouth. How long had he been asleep? It had to be at least two in the afternoon, considering the noise he heard on the street below and the vague memory of passing out just as the sun was rising.
He stood up, adjusted his sweatpants, and walked to the kitchen. He opened the cupboard to reveal a stack of coffee filters and ketchup packets. The fridge boasted a similar disappointment.
He sighed, grabbed his phone from the counter, and flopped back onto the worn, plaid sofa.
“Missed call and voicemail: Mom’s Cell” popped up on the lock screen.
“Good morning Sweetheart!” The high pitched voice chirped at him. “Jay, I know you’ve been having a hard time so I’m going to get right to it. There is an opening for an IT specialist at the senior center that I think would be good for you. It’s mostly installing anti-virus software and retrieving user passwords. It wouldn’t pay much but it would get you out of the house, help pay off some debt, and who knows, maybe you’ll meet someone. A friend…or something more! Anyways, think about it and let me know. Love you!”
The phone clicked over and he threw it between a collection of beer cans on the coffee table. His stomach growled angrily and he grimaced trying to remember his last meal. He dug his hands into his pants pocket and pulled out a wad of receipts, loose change, and some crumpled dollar bills. He counted out $9.79. It was enough to grab something from a food truck and a beer for on the way back. He stood, smoothed the front of his stained t-shirt, slipped his feet into his sandals, and grabbed his keys from among the mountain of unopened bills.
The crisp fall air hit him in the face as he exited his building. He zipped his sweatshirt while people were rushing past him, pushing children in strollers, squawking on cell phones, and yelling to friends across the street. Everyone so engulfed in their own lives that for a moment he felt that familiar memory of what it was like to be happy. Most days he could block it out. Play some video games. Smoke some weed. Drink some beer. Pass out.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
But some days it felt like a reckoning. Like he couldn’t hide from his own disappointment any more. He couldn’t ignore it or stuff it down, so he just had to feel it. Even if for a moment. Just like these suckers.
He rounded the corner and saw his food truck of choice. One that sells the cheapest and least questionable hot dogs. He ordered two, shoved one down his gullet immediately, and tucked the other in his pocket as he made his way into the convenience store. He grabbed a Colt 45 from the cooler and plopped it on the counter. The young clerk eyed him unamused as he rifled through the remainder of his change to pay for the beer. Jay dropped the exact amount onto the counter as she shoved the can into a brown paper bag and yanked the receipt from the old register.
He began making his way back to the apartment when a squeal behind him caught his attention. He turned around to see a little girl standing outside of a store window, giggling hysterically as she smacked the window with an open, chubby hand. Jay looked around. Cars were zipping down the street. Tons of people were milling around, yet this small child was standing alone. Where are her parents? Jay thought as he began making his way toward her.
He was within a few steps of her before a tall woman stepped out of the store, holding a puppy. The little girl squealed and grabbed at the dog. In a moment they had both turned their back to Jay and began walking down the street, gushing over their newest family addition.
Relieved, Jay turned to make his way back to his apartment when something in the window caught his eye. Inside he saw a wooden crate with an old dirty pink blanket. Sitting on top of the blanket was a puppy. Its brown, wiry hair was short and matted, and one of its eyes seemed a bit lazy. As Jay looked at it, he realized that it was looking back at him. The sign above the crate said “Puppy needing good home. FREE. Inquire inside.” Without realizing, Jay opened the door and stepped into the shop.
Birds chirped in cages and the metal grind of a hamster wheel was heard behind rows of pet food, supplies, and toys.
“Hello?” a gruff voice called from the back of the store. A short, balding man with a big belly appeared from behind a display of cat food. He pointed to the brown paper bag Jay was holding. “You can’t bring that in here.”
“Oh…” Jay’s voice trailed off as he placed the beer by the door.
“Can I help you?” The little man said as he eyed Jay suspiciously.
“Um,” Jay started and cleared his throat. “I was just curious about the dog in the window.”
The man’s face softened a bit. “Oh yeah, her. My granddaughter found her last week in the alley behind their building. She brought her home and her mother flipped out. I didn’t have the heart to take her to the pound so I told her I would see what I could do here.”
Jay turned back to the puppy who was sitting so patiently, even though her little tail gave herself away by eagerly flipping back and forth.
The man walked toward the crate, reached down, and grabbed her around her bloated belly. “I don’t know if she’s got worms, or any shots. I can’t guarantee she isn’t sick. That’s why she’s free.” He patted the dog’s head, but the dog couldn’t take her eyes off Jay. Jay shifted nervously as he quickly questioned his sanity on adopting a needy, possibly sick, puppy.
“Can I think about it?” Jay said as he reached out and began scratching the little dog’s head.
“She’s been here a week already. No takers. I’ll give it a few more days and then I gotta take her to the pound.”
Jay stopped petting the dog and looked at the man quizzically. “And then what?”
The man shrugged. “It’s not really my problem.” He gently dropped the puppy back into the crate and walked toward the register. He called over his shoulder, ”Let me know if you’re interested, I’ve got some discontinued kibble I can give you to get her started.”
Jay turned back to the puppy. Her eyes had not left Jay’s once in the entire interchange. He dropped to one knee and peered intently at her. She sniffed at him, then took a step forward and began licking the end of his nose. Jay laughed.
“You’ll probably need to be walked a lot,” he said to her, his eyebrows squished together. “I don’t like walking.” The dog sat and continued to peer intently at Jay.
Jay pursed his lips. “You’re going to shit all over my apartment too, aren’t you?” Jay’s voice dropped and the puppy lowered it’s head. Jay drew back quickly and softened his tone. “But it’ll be good for me. You know, help me stay on top of the cleaning. I’m not so good at that.” The puppy stood and wagged its backside in agreement. Jay reached into the crate and scooped her up.
What am I doing? Jay thought. I can barely take care of myself, much less a dog! And yet, while he was thinking this, he looked up and realized he was standing in front of the register.
“So, you gonna take her?” The clerk peered at Jay above his crooked reading spectacles.
“Um…” Jay cleared his throat again. He looked down at the dog, looked at the man, and then straightened. “Yeah…I am.”
“Wonderful!” the man’s round face brightened. He turned around and placed a large bag of puppy food in Jay’s free arm. “Here you go! It’s technically expired, so I can’t sell it to you, but you’ve still got plenty of time left to use it.” Jay shifted quickly to accommodate the heavy bag and also the tiny puppy, who was now licking the dried food off his chin.
Jay turned to leave and the clerk stepped in front of him to get the door, narrowly missing the brown paper bag Jay had placed there earlier.
“And if you need more, come back, I’ll give you a friends and family discount!” the man bellowed as the two made their way home.