Copyright© 2016 by AA Nemo
Sunday December 7, 2014
“No!” she screamed as she came awake. The startled cat fled. Kate trembled as she sat up in the bed.
The dream had been different from the ones in the past, but on the same theme. This time, she was in the car as it was T-boned and rolled over and over, killing her brother and parents. Sometimes she wished she had been with them that sunny summer Sunday afternoon when they had gone out to get ice cream.
She had stayed behind because one of her friends from school had called in tears about some silly boy thing and Kate helped her sort it out. She couldn’t help thinking that she had been on the phone about something so trivial while her parents were being murdered by a drunk.
She sobbed as she sat, arms wrapped around her knees. Finally, in her misery, she collapsed onto her side on the bed. Her John Hughes movie life had ended that day in Chicago and for the next year she had been imprisoned by her uncle and aunt, an ordeal followed by three-and-a-half years on the road. Three-and-a-half years of moving, always looking over her shoulder, dreading what would happen if he ever caught up with her.
The cat, recovering from his fright, came up and put his face close to hers, buzzing softly as if trying to calm and reassure her. Absently, she stroked his big head and as she lay back, he moved onto her chest.
Why can’t I shake these memories? she thought as the tears fell. She knew why — her idyllic teen high school life had ended that day. In a very short time, she lost her family, her home, her friends and all the connections to a world she knew since childhood. In exchange, she got a mobster uncle who terrified her and who haunted her thoughts, an ineffectual mouse of an aunt and cousins who openly resented her presence. She was placed in a convent school she hated and branded as a troublemaker.
She had made her escape on graduation night and in those years on the road, there had been mostly a series of menial, low-profile jobs while she tried to make enough money to survive and to keep moving, trying to put as much distance between herself and Philadelphia as she could.
Finally, her misery subsided enough for Kate to realize that light was coming through the windows. Alarmed, she sat up, dislodging the cat from his perch.
“What time is it?”
The cat just looked at her.
Kate looked at the bedside clock. It said nine. It has to be morning, she thought. She shook her head, knowing that anyone could have discovered her. A full stomach and the remnants of the flu had made her careless. As if on cue, her stomach growled. The cat jumped from the bed and moved toward the kitchen.
Kate swung her feet to the floor trying to dislodge the dark cloud that hung over her. She reminded herself that she was, for the moment, safe and warm and recovering with a pantry full of food. She just needed to be more cautious.
A thought flitted through her mind. She wondered how long it would be before anyone missed the white truck parked below her in the garage. She figured she could get pretty far on a tank of gas, if the truck was gassed up. Then she could simply abandon it. Of course the question was; what would happen then? She had no money and no contacts in southern California, if she got that far without being arrested.
She slowly shook her head. She was not a thief, unless you counted the thousand dollars she took from her uncle’s desk the night before she fled his house, and the food she had consumed in this house the night before. But she had good reason to take that money. It had been her only hope of escape and had kept her for a few months. As for the food, well, she had none and no way of getting more. She hoped someday to be able to repay the people who lived in this place.
No, she would not steal the truck.
Kate moved to the windows, pulled the bedroom window curtains aside and noted the rain had eased although the skies still threatened. From the second floor, she looked over acres of tidy rows of neatly pruned but leafless grapevines.
Where were the people who owned this house? Gone away for Christmas? That thought made her sad. The last Christmas with her family was almost five years ago. The memories were starting to fade despite her efforts to hold onto them. She didn’t even have a photo of her family. In her drugged and hastened departure from her family home in Chicago immediately after the funeral, her uncle had deprived her of all her contacts with her world; cell phone, computer and any mementos that had meaning to her.
During her odyssey across the country the past three years, she had often wondered about the house where she grew up and all the wonderful things it had contained. She knew it had been sold by her aunt and uncle and hoped the new owners were happy there. Sometimes she fantasized that she would be rich someday and able to buy the house from its owners.
Five years ago at Christmas, her life was perfect – at least in her recollection – her parents and brother were still alive and the family had gathered around. They never had a houseful because her grandparents on both sides were gone, her father was an only child and her mother was estranged from her sister. Then there was the terrible death of her parents and brother which meant that four years ago, she spent a miserable Christmas alone at the Philadelphia home of her Uncle Donatello and her Aunt Margaret, her mother’s sister. Their two teen children, her cousins whom she had never met before, hated her and treated her as an intruder. That year her uncle had taken the family away for vacation while she was confined to the house.
Kate remembered the feelings of loss and sorrow and the inability to come to grips with the fact she was an orphan, but that was also to be the first and last Christmas she spent as a ‘guest’ of Uncle Donatello and Aunt Margaret.
The past three Christmases? Last year she was working in a café-restaurant near the campus of the University of Texas in Tyler, so she spent Christmas Day with the owner, her family and some of the other employees. It had been the best Christmas in a long time. After Christmas dinner, she had walked the short distance to the quiet campus and on an amazingly clear night, she watched a dazzling meteor shower. She smiled as she remembered that.
2012? She had to think about that. Oh yes, alone in New Orleans. 2011? That was the worst, her first Christmas on the run and out of money. The memory was so vivid she wanted to cry. She had spent Christmas in a tiny, drafty rented room inside a big house in a poorer neighborhood of Atlanta. She winced at the memory of being hungry and huddled under thin blankets, feeling alone and miserable and crying. The restaurant where she worked and ate most of her meals was not open on Christmas Day. Her Christmas dinner consisted of the last of her cold cereal and a cup of weak, unsweetened tea.
Kate pushed those memories away. She tried not to dwell on her misfortune, but sometimes the memories threatened to crush her because of the stark contrast with the life she had known with her parents. She had occasionally wondered if people who were born poor were more contented by not knowing any other life. Would it somehow be better to have been born blind than have been blinded later in life?
As she tidied the bed, erasing any signs of her stay, she noticed a wood-framed photo on the nightstand. She picked it up and looked at a distinguished man with salt and pepper hair. He was maybe in his fifties or sixties. It was hard to tell since he was very fit-looking and his smile seemed to be that of a much younger person. He was wearing an open-collar, blue button-down shirt, a blazer and jeans. He had his arm around a young blonde woman about Kate’s age. She was wearing a cute red tank top covered by a short black jacket and nicely fitted expensive-looking jeans. They were smiling and standing in front of what she thought was one of the legs to the Eiffel Tower. They really did look very happy.
Kate wondered about the relationship. Father and daughter? The age disparity seemed to rule out lovers, but these days, age seemed no constraint. He was very handsome in a slim casual way. He looked like a successful man who was more than comfortable in a foreign location with an attractive young woman on his arm. The young woman looked familiar. She was very pretty and her smile was genuine.
Do they live here? Were they off in some exotic locale for the holidays, smiling at the camera as they sipped margaritas on some white-sand beach?
Kate returned the photo to its place, somehow saddened by the smiling couple.
She moved down the hall and into the kitchen followed closely by the cat. As she moved, she noticed the floor was warm under her feet and wondered if the owner had installed one of those radiant heating systems. It sure felt heavenly through her heavy wool socks.
“I’ll bet that feels good on your little paws, doesn’t it?” she asked the cat.
Kate fed the cat, pulled cereal and boxed milk from the pantry for herself then set the electric kettle to boiling. She also cut a slice of bread from the loaf she had brought up from the garage freezer the day before and put it in the toaster oven. Soon she was sitting on a tall stool at the kitchen counter with a mug of strong honey-sweetened tea, a thick slice of toast covered with butter and cherry preserves, and a bowl of cereal. She’d been hungry frequently over the last three-and-a-half years and this meal was a breakfast feast. She enjoyed every mouthful.
As Kate finished the cat moved to the door and looked at her expectantly.
“Going out? Suit yourself, but if I were you I’d hurry with my business. It’s cold and damp out there.”
Kate opened the door just wide enough to let the cat out. He hesitated momentarily as if assessing the need for the trip, but finally made his exit in face of the chill wind and light rain, quickly disappearing down the outside stairs.
She moved back into the kitchen and poured another cup of tea from the porcelain pot she had discovered in the cupboard. Warm mug in hand, she stopped to examine the gallery of photos on the door of the refrigerator. It seemed she had missed them completely the night before. They were all of the same couple featured in the bedroom photograph, either singly or together, always looking happy and in places she recognized from books and television — the Coliseum in Rome, more Eiffel Tower, London with a Beefeater and Buckingham Palace, a mountainous pastoral setting that was probably the Alps and a number of other scenes that looked like Europe. They seemed to have visited every country. From the young woman’s change in hair length and style, Kate figured that the photos represented more than one trip. The older man always looked the same, casually dressed in understated expensive clothes and very handsome.
She sighed and turned away, brushing tears.
Kate tided the kitchen, and like the bedroom, tried to remove any trace of her presence. She decided she had better move some of the pantry items and food from the freezer to the house across the breezeway. At least there was no sign of habitation there and the chance of discovery by a return of the owners or caretaker was lessened. She figured that if someone arrived they would go to the apartment above the garage and if they decided to inspect the house, she would have plenty of time to escape through the garage or the back door off the dining room.
She would have much preferred the comfortable bed in the apartment to the floor and her sleeping bag, but she just couldn’t take the chance. Her only way in and out of the apartment was the door at the top of the stairs and she would be trapped if someone came up. She also decided she would examine the bookshelf in the living room area of the apartment. With food and reading material, she could settle in for a few days at least and wait out the storm and recover her strength. She didn’t want to even think about where she would go next. For now, she would take it one day at a time.
There was a canvas shopping bag in the pantry and she filled it with her breakfast items and the milk she had put in the refrigerator, along with a few utensils and a can opener. When she opened the door, she was met by the cat, who moved quickly by her into the warmth of the apartment.
“I warned you, didn’t I?”
The cat gave her one of those inscrutable cat looks and headed back toward the bedroom. Kate laughed.
She put the milk in the refrigerator of the house below and then stashed the other items in the back of the pantry off the kitchen. She also moved her sleeping bag into the middle bedroom, the one across the hall from the door to the garage. She was sure anyone giving a cursory look would not detect her presence.
On her next trip, she brought some canned tuna and soup along with a box of crackers. She tried to rearrange the pantry in the apartment above the garage to look like it was undisturbed. On that trip, the cat followed her back to the house. Her next trip, she decided, was to have a closer look at the items in the freezer in the garage. As she moved to the door, cat at her heels, she froze at the sound of car tires on the gravel drive.
“Not yet, not yet,” she moaned as she hid herself next to the kitchen door, sitting in the corner on the cold tile floor with the cat in her lap. Her heart raced as she thought about what she might have left behind that would give away her presence. Had the smiling couple returned home? Had someone come to check on the place? She pushed away the despair that threatened to overwhelm her at the loss of her temporary sanctuary.
Kate listened as the car stopped very near the breezeway and she heard a car door slam. Shoes crunched on the gravel. She wondered if she should flee to the back of the house, but somehow she seemed paralyzed. Then the footsteps went up the wooden steps to the apartment. She heard the door above her slam against the freshening wind. She sighed with relief knowing at least for the moment that nobody was checking on the house she was in. It wasn’t more than a couple of minutes before she heard the door above close and footsteps come down the steps.
A woman’s voice called out,
“Here, Sam, kitty, kitty, kitty! Where are you Sam? Aren’t you hungry?”
The cat on her lap perked his ears. Ah, a familiar voice. Somehow the woman’s voice sounded older than the young woman in the photos. Was the person in the breezeway a catsitter?
The cat made his way to the cat door and pushed his way outside.
“There you are, you silly cat! Guess you’re not so silly since you’re keeping out of the rain. You’re not even wet. What a clever cat you are, Sam,” she said as she fussed over him.
“Are you hungry? I’m sorry I missed yesterday. I’ve got your favorite; chicken and liver. Here you go ... Bon appétit!” the voice laughed. At that point the rain started again, hammering on the tin roof of the breezeway.
A voice from farther away, maybe from the car interrupted,
“Sandy, come on, stop messing with that stupid cat, we’ve got things to do and I want to get home before the game starts!”
“Okay, just a minute!”
“See you tomorrow, Sammy. I’ve left you plenty of crunchies so that should hold you over until tomorrow afternoon after the mailman gets here. You stay dry, big guy. Got to go. Bye.”
As she listened to the sound of the car moving away on the gravel and the rain on the roof, Kate sagged against the door. She wrapped her arms around her knees and put her head down trying to calm her racing heart and stave off the tears that were so close to the surface. It was a losing battle. Now that the immediate threat had subsided the hopelessness of her situation seemed to crush her spirit.
Why had this happened to her? Kate was not raised a Catholic, but the Catholic school where her uncle had placed her during her senior year had preached the love God had for his children and how like the birds, he would take care of them. During that time, she had often prayed, perhaps that was what gave her the strength to make her escape from the evil person her uncle was and the prison they called their home.
But the following years while she was on the road alone, it seemed the more she prayed, the worse her circumstances became. She wondered if there wasn’t some karmic justice for being evil in a past life.
Kate remembered little about the funeral for her parents and the immediate aftermath. She knew now it was the pills given her by her aunt ‘to help soothe her.’ She had taken them without protest, wanting the sanctuary offered by the mind-numbing drugs. She didn’t have the will or strength to protest when she was uprooted from all she knew and taken by her uncle and aunt to their home outside Philadelphia. It was really an estate located in the countryside, a huge house surrounded by an eight-foot stucco wall and a gate always guarded by at least one armed man, constantly patrolled by a pair of Rottweilers, and monitored by security cameras.