The Stray

Short-listed Entry: Fiction Category 

By: J.R.Poulter

My parents are dead – I think. Ah, I dunno. Others in the home had visits, outings, not me, not till this year anyway. I’ve been in this place forever. I HATE IT! Even the short termers talk about ‘getting out’. The place’s dark, high ceilings hovering over you like something that’s going to pounce, like the strays that raid the bins. Here – no names, you get a number, a different one for each section. First, I was in D Block, babies block, all the little kids under 5 go there. I was number 63. You don’t forget your number, all you stuff’s numbered. Then I was in B, six to nine go in there. My number was 17. Now I’m in E Block, ten to thirteen year olds. It’s the last. You’re on your own after that. My number- thirteen. Unlucky? No way. I’m a survivor! Some don’t.

I started at high this year. I hate it. I’m different. The other kids’ve got the uniform. The home can’t afford that, so we wear this cheap stuff they get bulk. It makes us different, makes us fight. I’m good at that, REAL good. Why? ‘Cause I don’t give a stuff! I mean there are no rules, get me, NO RULES! You fight to win or you don’t fight!

I’m fighting now – inside. But this’s a different fight. This’s new. It’s like there’s rules to THIS fight, but I don’t know them so I don’t know what to break. I feel lost – I want out, but I can’t – just yet –

****

It’s because of this new guy at school, a little wimp with a calliper on his left leg. He drags this leg round like it was broken. His eyes are huge, brown, like Deefa. Deefa, you know “D” for dog, I found it. They let me keep it till it broke a leg chasing a car. Then they had it put down. Ha! Someone should’ve put THIS kid down. EVERYONE picked on him. He didn’t cry, just looked at you with those huge eyes. I think if he cried they might’ve left him alone.

A while back they went too far. He fell hard. Broke his arm. He was lying there with this useless thing dangling off his elbow, blood running from his nose and those dog eyes. I felt the same pain I felt when they took Deefa, the dull, aching. I can’t handle that sort of pain. I go mad. After Deefa they put me in solitary for a week – cool off time – I’d fought everything and everyone. Now I ‘d got mad again. I ripped into those guys. They ran!

I looked down at the kid, “You got a name?”

“Jeromy.”

I helped him up and half carried him to sick bay. “For starters”, I said, “you’ve got to lose that name. Jerry, after the mouse.” I laughed. That was REAL appropriate! I’m Tom. The ONLY thing that little guy and me had in common was our surnames. Bit weird.

After that Jerry sort of hung around me. Everyone always left me alone, now they left him alone too. At first he was a nuisance, I’d try and lose him like I did Deefa at the start. But he kept on. I discovered he was good at school. I never did homework. He showed me some stuff. I actually passed something. Old Fletcher couldn’t believe it, “So you’ve finally decided to join in Thomas! Look out Radford, he may just vacate the dunce’s seat, then you’re IT!”

Radford couldn’t even string letters properly, I mean ‘teh’! Idiot! The only reason I was bottom of class was, I WOULDN’T do anything.

I found out Jerry lived two streets behind the boys home, near the pine grove at the far end. That was great. I’d runaway heaps of times but I’d never had anywhere to go to. I’d sneak out in chore time. I could always make some sucker do mine. Then I’d creep down through the pine grove, over the fence to Jerry’s. I’d stand at the fence and toss a stone at his window. He’d come out and we go off ‘exploring’. That’s what HE called it. He’d never done ANYTHING that kid.

His Mum came out once. If I’d known she was coming I’d have run. I didn’t have anything to do with women except the home superintendent’s wife. She’d kiss you on the head and give you sweets on your birthday. The kiss was enough to make you puke, but it was worth it for the sweets. We never got stuff like that. Anyway, this day I was busy talking to Jerry and had my back turned to the house – I was so intent on our plans I didn’t hear her .

“Tom, I want to thank you for – for rescuing Jeromy,” she had a soft voice and eyes like Jerry’s. I shrugged, mumbled something and got out of there.

****

The first school holidays after that I got an invite. It was the first I’d ever had. I wasn’t told WHO. I guessed the home was just glad to be rid of me for a while – to anyone! The morning I was to be picked up, Mrs Ross the superintendent’s wife called me up to the office.

“Thomas,” she smiled like the pretend sugar she used in her tea, “ you have been invited by a most respectable family, invited to spend the holidays. They have an only son, a lonely boy, and they think you will be company for him. Heaven knows why. Your behaviour has never been – ,” she paused, “ well, at any rate they INSISTED on you. So you’re going. Do TRY and behave,” Then, as if someone else wanting me gave me some value in her eyes, she added, “There’s a good boy.” And she handed me the standard mingey ‘pocket money’ kids on leave got.

I waited in the big hall with all the other pick up kids. Most were going to parents or relatives. One by one they all went. There was just me. The lunch bell came. Still no one. I ‘d been awake most of the night, now I curled up on the wooden waiting bench. I slept. I don’t know how long. I was dreaming about the pine forest and the noise of the wind. Next I knew was this voice whispering my name loud and a big hand shaking me, for some reason I remembered roughing it with my dog as I looked up into this broad shaggy face with hair and eyes the same colour as mine. The big hands swept me and my bag out of there.

“Come on, sorry we’re late, Jerry’s in the car.” It was like I’d always known this rough barked man. He even called his son by the same name I did.

****

They didn’t tell me where we were going, but it was a long drive. Jerry curled up and slept with his head on my shoulder. He was so like Deefa it was weird. I spent my time watching city merge with countryside and country towns blink by. We had late lunch in a place full of scrawny kids and dogs, fat women and men who looked like the posts they leaned against. The sandwiches we got at the roadhouse were as huge as the lady who served them. I didn’t mind her, for a dame I mean, her bigness made room for you, and her smile was like “It’s alright”, you know what I mean.

The afternoon melted in the heat haze. The summer night wrapped us like a blanket you couldn’t throw off. We stopped at another roadhouse, a flashy one this time. Jerry’s Dad called it “touristy”. The waitress was flashy too, big earrings, big mouth. We had fish and chips – I’d never had that before – it was just the BEST stuff I’d ever tasted and the aroma – incredible! Some hours after we left there, I started to taste fish and

chips again like it was in the air. This place we were going – it had to be the BEST on earth!

I must’ve been half asleep when we got there, because I don’t remember much – just the fish and chip smell, strong, wonderful, everywhere.

Jerry and I woke up in this room with a washing and breaking sound rushing in from outside – I threw back the curtains. The sea – I’d never seen it before – it was like the big lady at the roadhouse – it made room for ME – endless wide-armed room and that great salt taste to everything –

The sand came right up to the cabin door, warm gold grains the colour of those in the big old egg-timer cook had in the home kitchen. ( I didn’t want to be reminded of that. ) Jerry and I would lie awake at night listening to the surf and planning – swimming, exploring the cliffs and caves and fishing.

At first I wasn’t sure about the fishing – Jerry’s Dad went with us. I felt strange. Here was something normal, something everyone had – a boy and his Dad – and a mate. I should’ve been able to take Jerry somewhere with MY dad – what’s a dad?! I started to feel this ache again, right dead centre like when I lost Deefa. I’d get real busy doing stuff at those times. Jerry’s Dad’d laugh and tell me “Don’t use it all up, there’ll be times, more times.” He’d talk – tell me things, like on the night he took me fishing. Jerry was too tired, he collapsed in heap after tea and his Dad said “Come on, Jerry’s probably a bit young. But you’ll enjoy it.”

I was uneasy, I didn’t belong, not in together stuff like this. He didn’t talk much till we got there, a wild spot off the headland. The locals had said this was the pick. As we scrambled over the rocks I slipped.

“Careful son!”

That was it – I don’t think he even realised he said it – but it pounded through my head. I was angry and jealous of those words. They tangled round me, caught in my throat. I felt like the fish we landed thrashing for their lives on the rock, out of their element, not understanding.

He must’ve sensed something because he started to talk. His name was Thomas, like mine, after his Dad. He told me about growing up in a country town – Mum, Dad, brother and sister. The accident – his Dad and brother dead – his Mum’s illness. He’d been in a place like I was – his Mum’d died whilst he was there. Sister went to friends. Lost track of her.

“I did two years” he grimaced, “then my grandmother came from interstate and got me out. I can even remember my number – thirteen. “

I told him it was my number. Did he think it was bad?

“Hmph, no. Things’re what you make of them. Those two years taught me heaps.”

I wanted to tell him stuff – about Deefa, about the window I slept under in the home, the window overlooking the pines, about fighting, green jelly – I loved it, about – but it hurt and – what was the point. I REALLY wanted us to go fishing like that again and yet, when he suggested it, I couldn’t .

I said no and gave this pathetic excuse. He looked at me quietly and said, “There’s time.”

I thought he was kidding, I mean we had two more days left.

****

The night before we left, there was this wild storm. Jerry’s Mum and Dad didn’t wake, they’d gone on this long walk to ‘talk about things’. It must’ve tired them out. They didn’t wake when the lightning cracked like a whip and the thunder swallowed the

air up in its noise. I was listening, and watching the waves crashing, pounding into the rocks like desperate boxers – I was fighting too.

At first I didn’t hear Jerry, then things were still a moment – he sounded like Deefa when his leg broke. I lay there fighting the tears he was shedding and I couldn’t. I’d let that gammy-legged kid too close. Now I was paying for it.

I tried blocking him out with the pillow over my head. Lightning cracked sharp, his cry was sharper – mine – on the inside. I scrambled down to his bunk. He’d wet the bed. I knew how they dealt with home kids who did that, I always felt sorry for them. I used to too, when I was in the first dorm. I cleaned Jerry up and put him in my bed. He curled up to me and went to sleep right off. I didn’t.

In the early hours of the morning I got up and slipped out. It was heavy grey, no rain but a strong wind. I walked down the beach, kicking at rocks and refuse, the salt spray and the sand whipping me. I clambered up the rocks towards one of the caves we’d found. It had bones in it.

I was feeling my way down into its depths, when I saw these two lights flash back off to my right. I turned as I heard this low, guttural snarl. In the grey light from the entrance I make out the shape of this large dog. I put out my hand to calm it. It leapt, its teeth catching at my arm, ripping. It snapped again. I fell. All I could see were flashing teeth and eyes. I grabbed for anything – a rock – I hit! The animal paused, stunned, I hit and hit and hit! I don’t know how long. The dog didn’t move. I threw my head back to gulp in air, then the pain in my arm surged, broke over me and I vomited. I don’t remember much about getting back to the cabin. The rain came again and everything was blurry. The worst part was Jerry and his folk – they cared.

Getting back to the home was a kind of relief. I was loose again in the prison I was used to. I longed for and dreaded the next holiday. Jerry talked and planned, babbling excitedly like I was family or something – yeah, something – what’s family!? I’d tell him to belt up. I’d avoid him at school. But his eyes – they’d always get to me – like Deefa. Terms passed like that.

There were other holidays in different places, I became a sort of ‘holiday brother’. The ache inside was worse. They were tearing me worse than the wild dog, Jerry, his Dad, even his Mum. I decided no more. I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know how to fight this. I dreamed over and over the night of the storm, that first holiday – on the beach. I was out in the storm, everything blurring, the wild dog leaping out of the waves, dragging me under. I’d scream, but no one heard.

It was end of term again and we were supposed to be going back to the beach. I told Jerry I wasn’t going. He didn’t believe me. I knew I had to break with these people. The pain was worse than any pain I’d had in any fight. I wanted out.

****

The day before breakup, Jerry was still trying to change my mind. After school I wandered down to the pines.

About the end of spring this dero had moved into the woodshed down there. None of the caretakers went near there once the weather warmed. Some of us guys in the home poked around – curious, you know. The dero’d snarl at us like the head caretaker’s bull terrier cross. It had pale yellow eyes like the dero and snarled at you over its shoulder. You knew if it was let go, it’d kill you. The other guys kept clear of the dero. He had that look too. I was the only one who’d go near the pines. I’d snarl back at him – we’d lock stare like two curs sizing each other up, then we’d eye each other out of range.

This day, I almost wanted to see that mad dog. He was something I could reckon with. I remember one time coming up on him with Jerry. He hadn’t heard us and he spun round cutting himself with the knife he was using to carve something.

“You hurt?’ Jerry looked up at him with those big liquid eyes.

“Hurt! So? Listen. No one cares – no one.” Something flickered at the back of his eyes. Everything froze a moment, then he swore, charged at us swinging his arms, “GET! GET! GO ON, GET!”

We ran. Jerry wouldn’t go near the pines after that. He’d wait for me at the fence.

That afternoon as I passed the woodshed, I wondered why I hadn’t seen the dero yet. He was usually there that time of day. I felt I wanted to ask him something, but I wasn’t sure what. I noticed flies buzzing round – a foetid smell, something dead. I went to look through the open door. There was his hand stretched out, blue, rats’d eaten off the ends of his fingers. A few inches away where he’d dropped it, was a small wooden dog. I picked it up and got out of there. Without thinking where I was going, I headed for the fence – Jerry was there. He knew something was up, those eyes of his –

I tried to tell him, “That guy – in the pines -”

Jerry said nothing, just put his arm on my shoulder.

“Dead – “ it didn’t sound like my voice.

“We should go to his funeral” Jerry’s eyes were shimmering and overflowing.

Suddenly I was angry, “WHAT! Jerry you’re unreal! The guy’s a no one – who cares!’

Jerry just looked at me. I remembered the dog carving and was glad he cared even if I – I don’t know.

I used to be so sure –

Before he left that afternoon Jerry asked me again if I was coming to the beach with them. I said I’d see.

I didn’t tell anyone about the body, that’d get me in trouble for sure, but they found it. The police were there in the morning before school – men in coats, an ambulance. They all held handkerchiefs over their faces.

We weren’t supposed to go near there, but I snuck down. I asked one of the men as they were leaving,

“What’ll happen?”

“On ice. If no relative’s traced -” he paused, “No one’ll claim HIM. The state’ll dispose of the body.” He looked at me, “Don’t concern yourself, son, the old mongrel’s not worth it.” Then he turned and followed the others and the trail of flies to the ambulance.

I watched the men carry his body away and wondered who he’d carved the dog for. I thought about Jerry, that look in the dero’s eyes – I shook my head.

“NO!” My voice trailed lost in the pines. It was scary there alone with the smell of death.

Later, at school, I told Jerry about how they took him. I showed him the dog. The wood was about the same colour as Deefa. I found myself telling Jerry about Deefa, the accident, stuff I’d told myself I didn’t care about. Now it seemed I did, and everything was fighting –

I decided I’d go with Jerry and his folk. The funny thing was, when I told him, he said they knew I would.

Going with them for that holiday was the hardest thing I’d ever done. They’d become part of me, but they weren’t mine and now I wanted them to be.

The trip there was like seeing a favourite movie over again, except for two things. When we got to the first roadhouse, earlier this time, the same huge lady served us. She recognized us. Gave Jerry and I milkshakes on the house.

“Your boys’ve grown,” she smiled.

I waited for Jerry’s Mum and Dad to say something. They didn’t. I thought maybe they hadn’t heard, and I tried to forget it. I might have too, but at the second roadhouse, the one where we had the fish and chips, I went up with Jerry’s Dad to pay the bill, whilst Jerry and his Mum made their way back to the car. As she handed him the change, the waitress grinned at us, “This one’s y’spitting image!”

Jerry’s Dad heard, I know he heard, but he didn’t say anything, just gave this funny smile. I was glad of the dark.

****

The cabin was the same one we’d had that first time. Jerry and I even found the cache of shells and stuff we’d hidden under the floorboards – stupid – but I was glad it was there. I took Jerry and his Dad up to the cave where I’d killed the wild dog. The bones were there with bits of fur still stuck in places.

“That was no small animal. You’re a strong boy.” Without thinking he put his arm round my shoulder and squeezed, just like I’d see him do with Jerry . I sort of froze, I wanted to bash into him and hug him at the same time. He sensed something was up, muttered under his breath about not being fair to wait. He was quiet for a while, then he said, “ Listen Tom, Jerry’s Mum and I will have to go out for a bit. We’ll be back before tea. Can I leave you in charge?”

I nodded without looking at him.

Back at the cabin as we watched them go, Jerry gave me one of his bony little hugs, “They’re up to something! They won’t tell me. Isn’t it great!”

Everything broke, I found myself shaking Jerry, “NO! NO! It’s NOT! “

Jerry’s pup eyes overflowed. He didn’t understand. How could he. I let him go.

I needed to be out of there. But – his Dad had trusted me –

I’d wait, wait till they came back, then, when it was dark, I’d go. I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I’d run away from the home a heap of times. Slept under bridges, in empty railway carriages, derelict buildings, even trees. Stole food, things I needed. I’d fronted court with some of the other home guys, we were supposed to sit, and stand when each charge was read. It was easier to stay standing.

I remember one judge’s words, “There’s no hope for your kind. You’re no good, untrustworthy little felons. You’ll grow up to be a problem to yourselves and everyone else!”

He was wrong. Someone had trusted me. It was the only thing that stopped me now.

So, I’m waiting – Jerry doesn’t know what to make of me and I don’t know what to tell him. Now would be a good time for a sort of goodbye. I’ll be gone after they’re in bed. It’s best. I can’t handle this.

Jerry tries to talk to me, get me to show him card tricks. He loves that, reckons I’m a genius. He paws at me with his hand to get me to look at him. I can’t.

Then it hits me – I say quits to Jerry and his folk, and I have to say quits to the home too. I can’t go back THERE – Jerry, school – NO. I HATE the home – but running for good? I’ve been alone all along. Why’s it worrying me NOW?!

Jerry keeps asking what’s up. I don’t know what to say. I make us some afternoon tea and Jerry eats mine too. Then I decide I better do something. I kind of want Jerry to remember me –

I tell him we’ll walk, back up the beach to Dead Dog Cave. I put the dero’s dog carving in my pocket. I let Jerry talk – he’s planning all sorts of stuff. I try not to listen. When we get to the cave, I pick up a

sharp rock and go over to the skeleton. I pry out the two biggest incisor teeth and give one to Jerry. I put the other in my pocket. I hand him the carving. “You’ve got to keep these. It’s important.”

“I haven’t got you anything – ,“ his eyes go all sparkling.

I shake my head and and look back out towards the cabin and the road beyond. The car, it’s his folk. It’s with a kind of relief I tell him we’ve got to get back.

They park the car up behind the cabin as we arrive. Jerry’s Dad gets out and comes over. Jerry’s Mum is holding something in the car. I can’t make it out in the half light.

“Got something for you son.”

THAT word again. I look at him blankly. What’s he doing to me.

He brings me over to the car. Jerry’s Mum gets out and pushes this warm, wriggly bundle into my arms.

“He’s the closest we could find to Deefa. It’ll be big change.” He pauses, “We thought he might help make it easier.”

I stare at him, the warm pup’s struggling up and licking my face.

“Ask him. It is his choice,” Jerry’s Mum nudges her husband.

“We don’t want you to go back Tom.”

Jerry’s jumping around excitedly, despite his leg. Heseems to have caught onto something I haven’t, I’m numb.

“Tom, we were keeping it for a surprise at the end of the holiday, but – “ she can’t continue.

“You’re family! If you want to be, that is. My sister, before she died – “ Jerry’s Dad pushes this old photo of a young woman and a baby into my hands, turning it as he does. On the back is ’Ginny and Thomas, born 16th May ‘, my birthday.

“It took a while, tracking back through old records, we knew you’d been put in a home in the southeast. That’s why we moved there. To find you. Of course, we didn’t know at first, we suspected, you’re so like – ,” Jerry’s Dad pauses, he puts his arms round me and hugs me so tight the pup yelps.

Everything wells up like I’m going to drown.

Jerry suddenly has this revelation – “YOU’RE GOING TO BE MY BROTHER! ISN’T HE! ”

I’m breaking, but it doesn’t hurt the same. I’m glad Deefa’s licking my face. I’m not going back. I’m going home, MY home –

“Jerry! I’ll teach you those card tricks!” Brothers share that sort of stuff.

This is just the beginning.

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11 thoughts on “The Stray

  1. When reading The Stray, I couldn’t put it down. I could hear him, I could see him, I could feel what he was thinking, it was as though he was next to me and that was his own words – he was next to me and he was telling me the story in his own words. Fabulous story.

  2. I didn’t read it all but it reads pretty good to me; remember I am commenting on an area outside my field but it has all the ingredients of a successful story

  3. Pingback: Writing Competition Short Lists | pixelhose

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