A SHORT STORY
BY RUSSELL UNDERWOOD
Okay, diary, I know what you're thinking, because I was thinking it myself: That I shouldn't have taken her back to the park with me. That I should have gotten my thank yous and said my goodbyes and no harm done.
But you know there's a saying -- that when you save somebody you become responsible for them. I felt responsible anyway. And curious, too. So I did the dumb right thing and said I'd hide her for a while. My mama always said curiosity'd be the death of me.
The air was cool and full of soft breezes by the time we reached the park -- sometime around sunset, I guess. We came in past the big iron gates at the main entrance and she followed me quietly through the groves of Japanese maples. I could see she was still spooked -- could tell by her quick little footsteps that crunched the dead dry leaves beneath us, and by the way she grabbed my arm one time when the crows took up their screeching.
After a while, she put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Is... is that where we're going?"
She meant the cardboard city. It was close now -- about 50 paces -- and I could imagine what was going through her mind, this uptown girl with barely two days' experience on the streets. Cardboard city's not really a city at all, just a bunch of crates and refrigerator boxes grouped together near Pump City's own Speaker's Corner, where the crazies get up on the pedestal of an old statue to rant about the New World Order and other such conspiracies against man and nature.
This time of year, the city ain't so bad. Winters are tough, with the cold and the snow, and in the summer, the boxes stink to high heaven with the heat. In fall, it's okay, but I could tell it seemed bad to the girl. I didn't blame her for thinking that: Box living takes some getting used to for anybody. And at least I don't have to look at it.
There were fires burning when we got there. I could hear the dry twigs cracking in the flames, could feel the patches of heat coming up here and there. Dinner time. Only thing missing was the sound of talk around the fires. The whole city was quiet, and I knew it was because of the girl.
Then a voice said, "Hey, you old rascal, who's that you got there?" It was Bone's voice, coming from my right, maybe 20 feet away. He'd be sitting there at the lip of the box he shared with Bosch, who might or might not be his brother. They're good sorts -- the closest thing to friends I got in this place -- but Bone, he's got a mouth on him, even if he don't mean no harm.
Bone said, "Hey there, sweet thing. What you doin' with that shriveled up old man?"
"Like you can talk," I said, sounding like I took offense. To the girl, I whispered, "It's okay. Bone's good people," and we headed over that way.
I was never big on any of that psychic hotline horseshit you hear about, but I was starting to think maybe I had a little witchy blood in me. I felt those two goons coming, after all, even before I could hear or smell 'em. And now I felt something else -- felt the others watching as the girl and me shuffled on over to Bosch and Bone. I could feel the eyes of the sisters who had the witch blood strong in 'em and no lie -- that pair of spooky old hags who'd pretty well thinned out the park's population of feral cats for the purpose of the mysterious spells they threw. Others also watched, I knew -- especially crazy Meg, who's tall and lean with skin as raw and tough as flayed leather. (Don't ask me how I know this, diary. Let's just say I ain't proud.) Meg claims she's a brownie gone homeless with no family now to look after. She's harmless, though.
Thinking about Meg, then, I got a notion, and suddenly I realized where I'd heard the word Elfame before. Meg had told me one time that that was where brownies come from.
When we were close enough to the refrigerator box, Bone said, "Well now, ain't you going to introduce your little green friend?"
"Green?" I said. "What you talking about, green?"
In a soft and dignified voice, the girl said, "I'm not green. My hair's green. So what?"
"Hey, now, don't take no offense," Bone said. "I'm just teasin' with the old man. I think it looks right nice. An' that thing you got goin' on with your ears there -- that's okay, too. Filed 'em up real pretty. Gonna be all the rage, I expect." Bosch was making these spluttering sounds like he was trying not to laugh but couldn't help it.
I said, "Yeah, y'all just laugh it up" because I couldn't think of any snappy comebacks. But all the while I was thinking "ear thing"? And for the first time, I started wondering about what this girl really looked like, and what the hell did I know about her anyway? She said to me, "We need to talk."