Home: A Short Story

This was the last thing I wrote in college, and it was in response to a professor I didn’t like. All semester, he seemed to only respond well to super serious/sad pieces, and I had been writing light-hearted/comical stuff. So this was my attempt to be sad and serious, and I like how it turned out.

Home

This wasn’t her bed. The last one hadn’t been either. But it was the same moon. It was always the same bright white against the same dark sky, stars sprinkled across forming random patterns and shapes. The beds she slept in might always be different, but the sheets remained identical. Rough and coarse, like bales of straw, or an old burlap sack, like the one she used to wear for clothes, before this bed. Her skin grew red when she moved, searching for a position possible for sleep, possible to forget where she was, and to forget about the beds. The beds were always different, but her tears were always the same.

Today was Tuesday. But, of course, she didn’t know that. She didn’t keep track of the days. She only kept track of how hungry she was, how many holes were in her shoes, or how long her fingernails were, endlessly encased with dirt. To her, it was the day that grown-ups came. They looked at all of them, lined up like cattle in the front room. They walked slowly by, their expensive jackets and scarves fluttering with every motion. The women always had their arms through the men’s, and sometimes they would rest their heads against their strong shoulders, and they would sigh while looking into sad, empty eyes. It was never clear exactly what they were looking for, but most of the time they seemed to find it. They would talk to the Miss Hardey or Mrs. Tonle or Miss Smith, whoever it was this time, at the end of the row, and then exit into a small side room. The woman would walk back down the line, eventually reaching one of them, and she would grab the small, grimy hand, and they would leave, exiting into the side room, into a new life.

She had yet to be chosen. She always shook the dirt out of her moth-ridden clothes, and made sure to scrub her hands raw, but she was always left behind. And she would retreat to the bed she had been sleeping in, and stare at her hands, wondering what was so wrong with them. She would put up with this for a while, until she couldn’t take it anymore. There would come a point when she couldn’t take the shiny buttons and the red, glossy lips and warm smiles and the searching eyes and the slow, careful footsteps and the comforting arms anymore. She would become tired of being taunted with everything she wanted. And that’s when she would leave one bed to find another.

So when this Tuesday came around, she didn’t expect much. She didn’t dust off her clothes, and she didn’t wash. In fact she hadn’t for days. What did it matter? Her clothes didn’t complain of the filth, so she didn’t either. In fact, she rather liked the way the grime coated her skin. It felt comforting and warm, and was always with her. It was something she could rely on, and she liked having that something.

She was sitting on the bed that wasn’t hers but was. It was the last in the row, the one against the far wall, haphazardly wedged into the corner. She was tying her shoes as slowly as she could, dreading what was to come. The chaos in the room helped. Most of the children where red in the face, bouncing on their beds, throwing pillows into the air and at each other. Laughing and high squeaks filled the big room, making it feel cramped and closed-in. These were the new kids, the kids who didn’t know what it was like. They were hopeful. It wasn’t their fault. They didn’t know any better. All they knew was that after today, they might get to go somewhere where they would be fed and clothed and played with and hugged and smiled at and loved. But a few of them were like her. They sat on beds, most staring at their hands that rested in their laps. A few cried, a few scowled. But they were like her, and they did know better.

It wasn’t hard for her to tie her shoes slowly. The noises of the foolish children were distracting, but she also just wasn’t very good at it. She didn’t have shoe laces very often. Most of the time she would steal tape from the Misses office, or sometimes she would find gum on the street, and that worked even better. But sometimes, like this time, she was lucky enough to find 2 pairs of laces, or at least string, usually in a trash can or dumpster, and her shoes could become real shoes again.

First, the bunny crawls under the log. She bit her lip and squinted her eyes as she tried to remember what she had been taught. Next the bunny hops around a tree. She didn’t know when she had learned it, but she did remember who. Miss Clary. She was different from all the other Misses she had had. Where they were distant, Miss Clary was warm. Where they were disciplining, Miss Clary was understanding. Where they were harsh, Miss Clary was gentle. Now the bunny ties his ears tight so they won’t fall off. Miss Clary had treated her like a person, not like garbage, not like a mistake, but a real live person. A person who lived and breathed and needed food and love, and of course, who needed her shoes to stay on. At last, the bunny is home.

She wished the other kids would be quiet. It was hard to remember Miss Clary’s face with so much noise. She closed her eyes and tried to picture her. Her eyes had been green. They were the color of the park where she would sometimes sleep in. She had a certain bench she preferred, and she would wait and wait if it was occupied. She would look into Miss Clary’s eyes and remember this, and she would feel safe. Miss Clary’s hands had been soft, her fingers long and slender, and her nails clean. She remembered how they felt when she helped to tie her shoes. They seemed so delicate, as if the wind could break them into a million pieces and carry them away. But they were strong when bunny crept under the log and when bunny tied his ears tight. They were hands you could trust to know what they were doing.

She remembered Miss Clary’s voice the best. She had almost sounded like she was singing when she was only talking. She would sometimes get in trouble for not paying attention, but it wasn’t on purpose. She liked to close her eyes when Miss Clary talked, and let her body sway and let her mind empty, so that there was only the song of Miss Clary’s voice. But she tried to pay attention to her shoe directions and not hum along. That was the only way she could remember the words, because mostly she only remembered the feelings.

 

Sitting there on the bed, getting ready to be judged yet again, reminded her of a time long in the past when she was doing the same thing, only this time, Miss Clary had been there, and that had changed everything.

She stares out the window, watching the couples file in, two by two. It’s a cold day, windy and icy, so they all huddle together, covered in furs and scarves and each other. She can’t help but try to imagine what it might feel like to be wrapped up by arms covered in that soft fur. She thinks it might feel as nice as a hug by Miss Clary, but only a little.

The room is empty save her. The rest have gone to meet the fur-laden grown-ups, but she is uncertain. She is sitting on her bed next to the window, her shoes freshly tied, trying to find the energy, or the desire, to get up and join the others. For now, she is content to sit here and only imagine what it would be like to have a real home. This particular bed in this particular building is more home to her than anything else has ever been.

She hears footsteps behind her. She doesn’t need to turn to know who they belong to.

“Sophie, there you are! Everyone else is in the sitting room. I knew someone was missing. It was quieter than usual.”

Sophie turns around and Miss Clary is already sitting next to her, putting her hands on her shoulders.

“Now, come on. Aren’t you ready?”

“Miss Clary?”

“Yes, Sophie?” She smiles at her the way she always does, and Sophie can’t help but smile back, delighting in the music.

“Why can’t I just go home with you?”

“Oh, Sophie, you know that can’t happen. If I could, I would take you and all the others home with me every night.”

“But Miss Clary, that sounds perfect!” She bounces in her seat, biting her lip and pleading with her eyes. “Why can’t we?”

“Because of them, Sophie.” She points out the window. The last couple disappears from view. “It would be very selfish of me to take all of you home when those people want a child more than anything.”

“I guess you’re right.” Sophie looks in her lap and sniffles. Miss Clary puts her finger under her chin and raises her eyes to her own.

“Perk up, Soph! Just think about. One of those nice couples downstairs is waiting for you. They’ll take you home with them, and feed you more than you could eat in a week! None of that cold soup you eat here, right?” Miss Clary gets up, grabbing Sophie’s hand, which is freshly cleaned.

“You’re right, Miss Clary! I’m going to have a new mommy and daddy!” Sophie dives into Miss Clary, squeezing as hard as she dares. Miss Clary laughs, and squeezes right back.

 

She shook her head, ridding herself of the memory of that day. That was then and this is now. Miss Clary was gone, and she was alone, alone with her dirty hands, just the way she liked them.

The other children began to file out of the room, and she knew it was time. She walked in the back of the line, her laces flapping on the wood floor, having quickly untied themselves. Her fists clenched when she reached the top of the staircase, and she descended into darkness.

Miss Clary may have been everything to her, but she was a liar. She had been different then, and she had believed her without any doubt. She had trusted Miss Clary with everything she had. It was as if she had bottled up all her hope and gave it to Miss Clary for safe keeping, and then she threw the bottle on a dirty street, the hope gliding into the air and dissipating with the wind. Miss Clary had promised her a home, and that promise proved false.

 

Sophie grips Miss Clary’s hand as she is led to the sitting room. A few children are seated, staring into their laps, their cheeks covered in dirt, but the other children are milling about, endlessly chattering and twirling in circles, their eyes bright and their smiles spreading. Sophie moves to join them, and Miss Clary lets go of her hand. Sophie freezes and looks up.

“Don’t worry, Sophie. I have to go for now, but stay with everyone. It won’t be long now, sweet.” Miss Clary smiles showing teeth, and disappears out the door.

Sophie is left staring at the doorframe, momentarily transfixed. A tall child jostles her, waking her up form her imaginings. She bounds off to join the others.

“Children? Children! Please calm down!” Mrs. Harrow stands in sharp contrast to the group. Not only is she tall enough to touch the ceiling with the palm of her hands, but she has a stern countenance, quite out of place among the many romping children. Some of them run over and tug on her skirt, wrinkling the fabric. Mrs. Harrow shoos them away with a wave of her hand and a deep, throaty growl. The children scamper away laughing.

“Children, it’s time. Now everyone line up. I mean now. And be quiet!” Mrs. Harrow claps her hands. Children stop mid-giggle. “Line up and follow me.”

Sophie takes a place in the middle, in-between a red-haired girl with crooked teeth, and a blue-eyed boy whose sleeves and paint legs stop short of fitting him. They all march down the stairs and line up in the front room, waiting.

Soon enough, Miss Clary leads in four couples. Sophie thinks they all look wonderful, and she wonders which of them will be hers. The grown-ups take a minute to look over the children. A few of them have sadness in their eyes, but most are all smiles, and Sophie smiles back, trying to look as lovely as possible. She stands up straight, holds her hands in front her, and smiles as wide as her mouth will let.

All the couples slowly walk down the line and eventually come to Miss Clary, who then leads them into another room, away from the children. After some time passes, Mrs. Harrow exits the room and grabs a few of the children, bringing them back into the room. This seems to happen endlessly to Sophie, over and over again new sets of grown-ups are brought to the line, walk into the other room with Miss Clary, and over and over again children are led away by Mrs. Harrow. Sophie starts to get nervous when the red-haired girl and the blue-eyed boy are chosen before her. Surely her teeth are nicer than that girl, and her clothes fit her properly, unlike the boy. Did they not notice? Could they have missed how well-behaved she was? She doesn’t panic, as there is still time.

But time is running out. Less and less children are left, and Sophie still remains. While waiting for the last group to come in, she brushes off her clothes, her arms flying fast and faster, trying to rid herself of whatever it is that makes her unappealing. Then the door opens, and two couples emerge, and the cycle repeats itself. Sophie holds her breath when they walk by her.

When Mrs. Harrow comes out for the last time, Sophie readies herself to be led away. She makes sure her palm isn’t sweaty, and she tucks her hair behind her ears. She takes a deep breath. She can hear footsteps coming near her, and her heart races with every puncture of sound. It’s almost time. Sophie has trouble staying still, but she knows she must be proper and behave herself. Almost time. Almost time. Almost time. The footsteps are almost at her feet.

Sophie imagines the happy faces of her new parents. She’ll walk in the door and their eyes will light up and rush to her side. They’ll hug her and love her and never let go. They’ll take her home with them and be hers forever. She is so lost in her fantasy that she almost doesn’t notice that the footsteps have passed by her.

She looks down the line, and Mrs. Harrow has two children with her, one for each hand. They’re giggling and almost skip down the line to the room with the grown-ups.  The children on either side of Sophie are staring at their feet. Some of them hug themselves, and some of them let tears stain their faces. Sophie’s mouth is hanging open, and then her bottom lip starts to tremble. The door closes, the boom echoing in Sophie’s ears. Miss Clary comes out and leads the children back up the stairs, but Sophie stays where she is. She can’t leave, she hasn’t been chosen yet. She was supposed to have a home today. Her tears make puddles next to her feet.

She looks up the stairs, and Miss Clary is looking down at her from the top. The safe feeling Sophie feels when she looks into Miss Clary’s green eyes is gone, and instead she feels nothing. The music is absent from Miss Clary’s voice when she calls her name. She feels so alone. Sophie tears her gaze away, returning it to the floor beneath her. The puddles grow.

 

She stood in the line and tried not to think of the possibilities, the hope, anything. She didn’t try and look well-behaved; instead she did what she felt like. She picked her nose when it itched and slouched to be more comfortable. She didn’t even look up when the grown-ups walked by. She kept her eyes closed tight, picturing going home with Miss Clary and sitting by the fire with her and eating something warm and sleeping somewhere soft. Footsteps went past her repeatedly and the sound began to blur. They became the ticking clock in Miss Clary’s sitting room, where they had tea everyday at four, and the sun always shined through the window. They became the metronome perched atop Miss Clary’s old wooden piano, where they sat side by side, endlessly practicing scales.  They became the water dripping from the faucet in Miss Clary’s kitchen, the one that still hadn’t been repaired because she was too busy chasing her in circles around the table. They became anything but what they where, because nothing good would come out of them.

She felt something brush her hand. She shook it off, annoyed at being distracted from her life with Miss Clary. She felt the something again, this time harder and more firm. She tried to shake it off again, but it stuck to her like glue. She blinked a few times, clearing her head, and looked up. Mrs. Petry, or whatever her name was this time, was holding her hand and smiling down at her. She didn’t seem to mind the dirt that was slowing growing from the small hand to her own. Mrs. Petry tugged gently, and she stumbled forward.

She stood in the center of a small room. Mrs. Petry stood to the left of a man and woman, both trying to smile through nerves. She couldn’t grasp what was happening as she looked from Mrs. Petry to the couple, back and forth. This time? But her clothes were dirty, her hair was ragged, and her hands were the filthiest they’d ever been. She wasn’t anything that someone would want to take home with them and love. But she had been chosen?

“These are the Miller’s.” Mrs. Petry placed her hand on the woman’s shoulder, nodding to the couple. “And this is Sophie.”

“Sophie.” The woman smiled after saying her name, and she said it again, trying out how it felt. “I’m Donna, and this is Greg.” The man was tall, and his face had a warm glow. He had is arm around his wife, and she could see that his hand clutched her side, digging into her coat.

“We’d like to take you home with us, if that’s okay.” Mrs. Miller looked up at her husband, and they shared a secret glance.

She tried to speak, but nothing came out but air.  She coughed a little and tried again. “Okay.” She regretted it right after the word left her mouth. But wasn’t this what she had always wanted? Why didn’t she feel different?

“Great!” Mrs. Petry checked her watch. “We’ll set up a time for you to come by tomorrow. How does that sound?” The Miller’s agreed. As they all walked to the door, Mrs. Miller bent down on her knee and took Sophie’s face in her hands. She could see Mrs. Miller’s eyes were watery, and hers became watery, too.

“I’m so glad we found you, Sophie.” Mrs. Miller pulled her into a hug. She didn’t know where to put her arms. It had been a long time since someone had hugged her. She slowly put them around Mrs. Miller, and she closed her eyes and just focused on how it felt to be hugged by someone who wanted you.

After the Miller’s had left, Mrs. Petry ushered her back up the stairs.

“You’re very lucky you know. A lot of the others will never find such a nice couple as the Miller’s. You’re going to have a great, new life.” When they reached the bottom landing, Mrs. Petry narrowed her eyes, looking her up and down.

“And can you at least bathe before tomorrow? You don’t want to go to your new home looking like that do you? Now, scoot! To the bath!” Mrs. Petry pattered her on the back, and she slowly climbed the stairs, tracing the grain in the wood with her blank eyes.

Later, when it was dark and the moon was hidden behind gray clouds, she sat on the bed, the bed that was hers for one more night. She rubbed the sheet with her hand in circles. It felt rough like usual. She wondered what her new sheets would feel like. She wondered if there would be a window by her bed, just like this one. She wondered if she could love the Miller’s like she loved Miss Clary. No, she didn’t think that was possible. Miss Clary had been everything to her, but even then she had betrayed her. She had been ready for a family, ready for a home, but she had been left behind. Miss Clary hadn’t even wanted her, even after she was left standing in that line.

She hated this place. It reminded her of the good times with Miss Clary, but also the pain of her lies. She couldn’t take it anymore. She flung the scratchy fabric away from her and it hit the wall. The child sleeping in the next bed over grunted and rolled over, and then was still. She grabbed what was hers from under the bed, just a few extra laces and an old pillowcase she used as a scarf, and stuffed them in her coat pockets. She sat on the floor and began to tie her shoes. First, the bunny crawls under the log. Next the bunny hops around— She shook her head. She didn’t need that anymore. She could tie her shoes on her own, without Miss Clary. And she did.

It was cold outside, but she didn’t mind. It felt good against her cheeks, hot from running. She wondered where she would sleep tonight. She turned left down an alley. A park wasn’t too far away, and in the middle, amongst the green grass and the tall trees, there was a bench that was familiar, and that was safe.

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2 responses to “Home: A Short Story

  1. There’s so much to like here. The first three short lines make a great opening. Your use of absolute phrases is very good. Your descriptions, such as “Not only is she tall enough to touch the ceiling with the palm of her hands” are wonderfully visual and in keeping with the way a child would view the world. A well told story of betrayal whose psychology rings true.

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