by Kate Chandler
It started with a whimper. I had left my late shift at the hospital and was walking briskly through a dark, cold and blustery November night towards the bus stop, so bundled up in my coat and thoughts that I am surprised that I heard anything at all. But hear it I did, and as I stopped in my tracks to cock my head and listen more intently, there was a second whimper - a little louder this time - accompanied by a shuffling sound. I turned my head towards the sound and saw a small square cardboard box on the side of the pavement, partially hidden by an overgrown hedge.
It was shaking.
I quickly looked at my watch and saw that I had plenty of time until my bus was due, and so I approached the box and cagily lifted it up from the ground. I don’t know what I was expecting to find underneath it - a puppy or something, I guess. When I saw what it actually was, I immediately dropped the box back down to the ground and jumped backwards.
You didn’t like that at all. You cried, in fact - a long wail that sent a shudder right through me, but that left me feeling rather more empathetic and less revulsed than I had been just a few seconds before. I stood there looking at the quivering box, heart hammering in my chest, wondering what to do. All I knew was that I couldn’t leave you, that because I’d found you a duty of care was now upon me. I knew I couldn’t provide a home for you myself, but that it was my obligation to find somewhere permanent for you to stay.
I went back over to you and lifted up the box. You looked at me. I looked at you. You tried to smile but it came off more of a grimace. I could tell you were pleading with me not to leave you there all alone. I smiled at you, picked you up, placed you gently in the box, closed the lid and wrapped you up warm inside my coat. The bus arrived a couple of minutes after we reached the bus stop, and once I’d boarded it and had settled down in a window seat next to a heater for the forty-minute ride home, I heard you sigh in contentment, and felt the sense of calm as it washed over you.
When we reached home, I lit a fire in my little wood-burning stove, found a large clear tupperware container in the kitchen and took you out of the cardboard box to place you in it. We sat together gazing at the fire for a little while as it burgeoned into life, until I noticed that you were thirsty and hungry. I couldn’t think what best to feed you. I placed small bowls of water and milk and gravy in the container with you but you hardly touched any of them. Then I tried you with a small piece of tuna and a few beans. You seemed more interested in those but not nearly enough, and made it clear to me that you needed a specific kind of nutrition. I dutifully pricked my finger with a pin and transferred a few drops of my blood into your water dish. You lapped it all up then sat back, seemingly satisfied.
I transferred you to a large mason jar and you slept in my bed with me that night, me curling around you like a cat protecting her kitten. Despite the cold glass divide it felt cozy to lay with you that way, and I felt more content and at ease than I had done for a very long time.
Still, I knew you couldn’t stay. I had to find you a home of your own and I had to do it quickly.
The next day, after an early breakfast, we got straight out onto the streets in order to find a suitable candidate. As we walked around town you slowly started to let me in on what had happened between you and your previous owner. You told of how you had been cruelly and relentlessly attacked by several of your own kind; how your owner - alongside you - had felt each and every blow that they had dealt you and, at his wit’s end after several years of suffering, had finally decided that the only way he could save himself was to abandon you; how, even though you had been the one abandoned, you couldn’t stop worrying over how he was now coping without you, his best friend, his cheerleader and confidant.
I might have cried for your pain, had I not been concentrating so hard on ending it. Your story just made me all the more resolved to find you a new home and a fresh start as soon as I possibly could.
The task took longer than I had anticipated. We crossed back and forth across the entire town, through main streets and back alleys, looking for the right person. We sat on the steps of the art gallery and watched people milling around in the crowd, picking out potential suitors, then approaching them and engaging them in conversation. We sat on park benches next to lonely souls in need of company. We scouted coffee shops and bars and ice-cream parlours for that certain someone. Not one of them satisfied your requirements. You wouldn’t let just anyone provide you with a home and call you their own - you were looking for some quality in particular. You assured me that you’d know the right person as soon as we were in their presence, so we kept on trudging the streets until it was dark again.
We found George at around 4.50 p.m., standing atop the wall of a railway bridge, swaying alarmingly close to the wrong side of the edge. I approached him slowly, cautiously, vocally making him aware that I was there so that I didn’t startle him into any sudden movements. He didn’t turn around to look at me.
“Leave me alone,” he said, just before I reached the wall, “You can’t stop me from doing this.”
“I understand,” I said, letting you prompt my words, “But fate has led us here to be in each other’s lives at this very moment, and I just can’t allow you to do what you want to do in my presence.”
“Then go. Leave me to it.”
Unperturbed, I walked right up to him. Up close, his clothes stank of spilled liquor and stale tobacco.
“I’m sorry, I can’t. Not without hearing your story at least. If I’m to be the last person on earth who sees you, I need to bear witness to who you are, why you’re doing this. Please talk to me, for my sake if not your own.”
He turned around and raised his eyebrows, evidently surprised by my words, and nearly lost his balance as he did so. Much to my heart’s relief, he recovered and turned back towards the steep drop the other side of us, and the railway tracks below.
“Okay,” he said. I thought I heard a hint of mild amusement in his voice.
He told me about his young wife, how he had married her out of graduate school and how they had been set to travel around the world to find their fortune until she had fallen pregnant and given birth to their daughter; how his daughter’s birth had changed his outlook on life, shown him just what sort of treasure could be had right at home without needing to travel to distant shores; how he had changed his plans to become some big-shot animator in L.A. or New York, and happily settled instead for animating low-budget films at a small local company that had felt like family.
He told me how he felt that his appreciation for this change in destiny had seemed to anger, rather than please, the gods; how three years beforehand, a car waiting to turn at a crossroads had been hit by a truck coming the other way and been shunted right across the street into the crosswalk just as his wife was crossing with his daughter in her stroller; how his daughter had been killed instantly and his wife had died some months later after a long battle with her injuries; how he had slowly fallen apart afterwards, drinking too much, picking fights with everyone who ever cared about him, until he lost his job, and then his friends, and then eventually even isolated himself from his remaining family; how he had spent the last year surviving on a cocktail of drink, drugs and sleep in an effort to blot out all consciousness, until he had finally realised that there was no hope left for him, and no use carrying on without it.
It broke my heart to listen to him tell his story, but you - I could feel you gaining energy. The force of compassion you were sending out filled my heart with an overwhelming sense of peace, so that I looked at this man not with pity, but with utter love. When he had finished talking, I touched his trouser leg. He looked down at me, his face cold and stern, but what he saw in my eyes got through to him and his expression immediately softened.
“I want to show you something,” I said to him. “Will you come down and look at what I have in this box? I promise you, once you have done so, I will walk away and leave you to it, if that is still what you want.”
I didn’t see why he would trust me with that promise, but he looked at his watch, noted aloud that the train wouldn’t be coming along for another five minutes anyway, and agreed to hop down and see what was in my silly box while he waited. He was a big man. I guess he figured that there was no way I, with my slight frame, would be able to stop him from climbing back up onto the wall afterwards and doing what he felt he had to do.
I passed him the box. He opened it. At first he turned his face away, but the strength of feeling you sent out immediately made him look back at you. Tears sprang up in his eyes, and a look of awed peace washed over his face, dropping five years of anguish from his features and posture. He smiled. A lovely, beatific smile.
“You want it?” I asked.
He looked up. “You’d give it to me?” he asked, astonished.
“I’ve got one of my own. This one wants to be with you - can’t you feel it?”
“Hell yes, I can.” He giggled, unexpectedly and quite charmingly.
“Then, if you trust me, you’d better come with me now. We haven’t got a lot of time - it can’t survive much longer out of a body. I have a good friend, Drew, who used to be a surgeon but was recently struck off - don’t ask why, it was illegal, but nothing major - and he owes me several huge favours. I’ll call him over, we’ll get this thing into you.”
I stopped talking while the commuter train passed at full speed through the tunnel below us. He watched it go by with an almost maniacal expression on his face. He looked back into the box. He shook his head in disbelief and then looked at me sidelong, evidently trying to judge the amount of crazy that was hiding behind my pretty, young face.
“What the hell,” he said, “I’m supposed to be dead at this minute, what’s a little heart surgery going to hurt?”
George scrubbed up pretty well once he’d recovered from the operation. I found that I couldn’t bring myself to kick him - and you - out of the house afterwards. I’d got so used to having you around by then, and you make me feel alive like nothing else has in my life.
You and George have proved to be as good a match for each other as you’d thought. He is slowly getting back to his craft and looking for new work, and though he still has plenty of dark moments, and still drinks too much to try to block them out, it is obvious how much your presence calms him and brings him hope. Those beatific smiles of his are much more frequent these days and just as lovely, and the feeling of being charmed that I experienced in that first giggle I heard from him was not inconsequential. Now, when I curl around you at night like a cat protecting her kitten, it is not the cold glass of a mason jar that divides us, but the warm, strong body of a man who I think I am starting to fall in love with.
I can’t say what the future holds for any of us, but I promise you that I will never intentionally cause you pain, and will always protect you from any cruel attacks delivered by your own kind. And whatever George does, and wherever he takes you, I shall never abandon you.
Goodnight, my friend. Sweet dreams.
GOODNIGHT, MY FRIEND copyright © Kate Chandler 2015