Mommy says I have to always be quiet like a mouse so they won’t find me.
David remained quiet and still as he surveyed the dark aisles of the long abandoned grocery store. Sunlight filtered through the still intact wire clad glass at the front of the store allowing David to confirm that nothing moved. He silently climbed down from the hole in the ceiling and glided down the aisles pausing every so often to listen. The only bodies in the store were the dry long decayed jumbles of bone and clothing that posed no threat.
Mommy says I have to eat vegetables to keep strong.
David stopped in front of the rows of canned vegetables that stood in ranks on the store shelves. He unslung the pack from his back and pulled from it a fistful of thick cotton socks. He carefully selected cans of vegetables from the shelves, placing each can into a sock before placing them snuggly into the backpack. David tested his pack to make sure it made no sound when he moved, then satisfied moved down the row and did the same thing with two jars of peanut butter. As he moved to the exit something caught his eye. He stopped in front of a display of boxes at the end of an aisle.
Poptarts!! David’s mouth watered. He loved poptarts. Several boxes disappeared into his pack. He mentally marked this place as a place to visit again.
David shrugged on his backpack. It was heavy on his back but not unbearable. He left the store and began the slow halting journey back to his sleeping place. Only a couple of times did David see “them” but he was quiet and able to keep far away.
The noise from a falling trashcan lid echoed loud from a nearby alley. David ducked into the shadow of a crumpled police cruiser. He banged his leg on the open door, a jagged edge of metal drawing a thin red line on his shin. He winced in pain and froze, scanning the area for the source of the sound. Several minutes passed.
David waited and watched. Slowly a large grey cat emerged from the shadows of the alley, a freshly dead mouse held firmly in its jaws. The cat jumped silently to the stoop and then disappeared through a half open window in the tenement building across the street from where David watched.
“Poor mouse”, thought David, “I guess he was not quiet enough”.
After a few more minutes David resumed his journey to the safety of his sleeping place.
David’s sleeping place was in the crawlspace above his empty apartment in a tall four story tenement building. A louvered vent allowed in enough sunlight to see. In one corner was a jumble of blankets and a worn blue and red Spiderman sleeping bag. Peeking out from under the blankets was a ragged brown stuffed toy rabbit. Nearby the sleeping bag stacked in neat rows were cans of food, bottles of water, soda, and sports drinks, and boxes of other odds and ends David had collected.
He sat near the vent placing the last of ten multicolored bandaids on the cut in his shin. “Mommy would be proud of me” David thought, “Even though it hurt real bad I didn’t even cry.”. His leg ached. The bandaids did nothing for the pain but their bright colors made him feel better anyway.
After retrieving his rabbit and a tattered book from the blankets David sat down close to the vent. With “Mr. Moppet” perched in a place where he could “see” David opened the book. Colorful characters told their stories as David flipped through the pages. Pink and blue butterflies danced in the fading light. Sad bears in trousers, dashing capeclad cats, and pigs with hats and petticoats played across the pages. He remembered his mother speaking the words that went with the pictures. He remembered her warm presence as she read to him out of the book of bedtime stories.
He sat in the crawlspace above his apartment by the vent looking at the pictures in the book until the setting sun cut off his only source of light.
David awoke to the sound of rain. Eagerly he fumbled in his stack of supplies then sped quickly but quietly to the flat roof of the apartment building. He stopped and made sure the area was safe before he walked out in the open to the large tub slowly filling with rainwater.
Mommy says I have to get clean when I can.
David stripped off his clothes and threw them casually off the side of the building to the growing pile of clothes in the alley below. He opened the bar of soap and after allowing the warm rain to soak his naked body stepped into the tub and began to scrub his skin. The rain washed away layers of dirt and sweat. The water in the tub darkened to a murky brown as he bathed. David made sure to wash “all” the places just like his mother showed him.
After washing David ghosted through several apartments looking for fresh clean clothes. He was familiar with the area and knew the apartments that were occupied and the ones that were empty. Even with this information he still took time to check out each place before entering. He found clothes neatly folded on a shelf in a closet waiting for a child that would never again need them. They were a little big on him but otherwise OK. He chose a blue shirt with the picture of Mickey Mouse and shorts with pockets in case he found something. It was not long before he was once again clothed, the fresh clean clothes feeling good on his clean skin. By the time he had returned to his sleeping place the rain had stopped.
Mommy says never to talk out loud when I am away from my safe place.
Days later David again made his way into the unfamiliar neighborhood of the abandoned grocery. He crouched on the fire escape peeking into the open window of an apartment. He could see part of the living room and the entire kitchen. He waited, listening for the telltale shuffling that signaled danger.
Suddenly he saw her. She moved silently and tentatively down the hall and into the kitchen, stopping to look and listen for several minutes before going to the kitchen cabinets. David watched fascinated as she wrapped several cans in cloth before putting them in a bag. His heart beat fast within his chest. “She is not one of them” he thought. He made a decision.
Carefully he climbed in the window and glided over to her. Suddenly she turned on him, her body tensed in preparation to flee. His eyes met hers, round, white and full of fear, two large orbs in a dirty face. David raised his finger to his lips and gently said “Shhh.” They remained looking at each other for several long minutes.
David broke his mother’s rule, leaned forward slightly and softly whispered, “Come with me”. He turned and padded back to the open window. He looked back to see her hesitate with indecision, then slowly follow him.
The journey to David’s’ sleeping place took longer than before. David moved tentatively making sure she could follow, stopping and waiting for her or encouraging her with follow me hand gestures when she showed reluctance. During the journey he marveled at the way she moved, her steps nimble and silent. She always stopped to listen at all the right times. “She plays the quiet game really good” he thought.
They arrived at David’s sleeping place just as the sun was going down. Safe in his crawlspace David relaxed and saw her relax a little as well.
“We are safe here” he said in a soft voice, “I’m David, what’s your name?”
“Amy.” She replied in a small still voice.
“Do you want a poptart, I have lots” David said offering her a package labeled cherry.
Amy quickly devoured the offered treat then licked her fingers. David gave her another which Amy made disappear as quickly as the first.
“Is anybody with you?” asked David handing her a bottle of water. It felt good to watch her accept the things he gave her.
“My mommy is downstairs in my house” Amy said, “She can’t come up the stairs because of her legs. Only she is different now so I can’t be with her. I still see her sometimes through the window.”
“Yeah, My Daddy is like that” said David in commiseration, “I used to see him sometimes when I went out, but I haven’t seen him in a while. My mommy says he is not my Daddy anymore and I should run away if I see him.”
“Is your mommy here?” asked Amy with just a hint of hope in her little voice.
“No” replied David, “She got hurt and had to go away.”
They sat in silence for a while as the sun went down, the light in the crawlspace slowly fading.
“Do you want a sleepover?” asked David hopefully, “It’s almost dark outside and I’ll let you sleep with Mr. Moppet” he said holding out his stuffed rabbit for her to take. “You can have poptarts and peanut butter for breakfast.”
Amy took the offered bunny and after deliberating for a moment said “OK”.
David smiled. It was his first ever sleepover.
Amy was soon asleep on a pile of blankets, Mr. Moppet clutched tightly to her chest. David listened to her soft measured breathing in the dark. His nose twitched as he realized she smelled. He felt himself happy that she was here, even if she smelled. “Maybe her Mommy did not tell her the clean rule” he thought, “Maybe I could teach her the clean rule.” That thought made him feel good.
One last thought drifted through his head before sleep overtook him.
“Maybe she is not the only one out there” he thought, “Maybe there are others.”