God Has One, Too
by Edna C. Horning
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3,
4, 5, 6, 7, 8
Cricket, age 17, lives with her Aunt Lucy and Uncle Sulo to finish high school while her parents are on an extended trip abroad. Cricket is devastated when she learns that her aunt and uncle intend to do away with her beloved dog, Smidge. She and Smidge set out on foot to seek refuge with her Aunt Vera, who lives a hundred miles away. Smidge will have an influence and effect that no one could have expected.
A journey of a thousand miles might, as an Oriental philosopher had once philosophized, starts with a single step. By comparison, Cricket’s journey was perhaps a hundred, give or take, but exactly where that beginning step should be was the question currently before Cricket.
She recalled that three blocks away a house was for sale, one whose owners, Cricket knew for a fact, had vacated weeks earlier. And this, she decided, would be her point of departure. Situated on a corner lot, it was strategic not merely for its unoccupied state but also for the semi-wild condition of its landscaping. Gently she tugged on Smidge’s leash and, scant minutes later, aided by streetlights, the two arrived without mishap.
She hid Smidge and herself between the house and two ligustrums, neither of which appeared ever to have been menaced by shears or saw and had, as a consequence, grown together to form a horticultural wall. The plastic poncho she spread on the ground was day-glow orange; a much duller color would have provided better camouflage, but Cricket owned no other, and she and the dog were concealed enough that it couldn’t matter.
A mere three blocks they’d gone, and already her shoulders were starting to ache from her heavy burden. She had deliberately overpacked on the theory that whatever proved less essential could always be discarded. Unfortunately, the most essential items — their food — were also the heaviest, and Cricket wryly contemplated the paradox: as the food was eaten down, there would simultaneously be less to carry and less to sustain them.
When she was stashing items behind the hutch, Cricket had purposely not taken any food at that point. Her aunt, who despised clutter and was meticulously organized regarding mealtime routines, allowed a bowl of fruit and nothing more to sit on the kitchen table during the day.
All else — bread, bagels, English muffins, cereal boxes, oatmeal packets, pancake and waffle mix, coffee, creamer, sugar and other breakfast comestibles — were kept in the pantry until time to retire. Donned in robe and slippers, her aunt routinely pulled her selections for the following morning from the shelves and placed them by the fruit.
It was an entrenched practice, and Cricket knew that however cleverly she, Cricket, might try to rearrange things, the absences would be noticed. Far better to wait till predawn darkness when, aided by a flashlight and moving with syrupy slowness to prevent rustles and clanks, she had taken the bagels, muffins, oatmeal, raisins, granola bars, mixed salted nuts, Fig Newtons — certainly the worst cookie ever — stack packs of saltines and Ritz crackers, most of the fruit, and a large, nearly full jar of peanut butter.
Heaviest of all were the cans containing chicken, salmon, tuna, and Vienna sausage, all of which had pull-tab lids and would have to be consumed in entirety once opened. The sole refrigerated items she decided to risk were three hard-boiled eggs. And topping off everything were Smidge’s biscuits.
They settled themselves as comfortably as hard earth permits and waited. Cricket recalled a tad of imagery from a poem whose author and title had fled memory, something about “the gray fingers of dawn.” Or was it “the rosy fingers of dawn”? Whichever it proved to be, Cricket remained on high alert despite deepening fatigue.
* * *
Looking out and up, she strained her eyes at the silhouettes of the ligustrum leaves against the sky. Were they more highly defined than a minute ago? Yes? No? Precisely when, to the minute, was first light this season of the year? The ancients would have known. They lived outdoors, slept outdoors, cooked, ate, mated, hunted, gathered, rested, fought, forgave and finally died outdoors. The intricacies of nature were as familiar to them as their own hands and feet. Not so with many moderns, Cricket included.
She had set for themselves a goal of twenty miles per day. Untutored though she might be in matters astronomical, she had gleaned from her ambles with Smidge a fair notion how much territory the average person, she being average, could cover on foot. A mile every half-hour multiplied by ten hours meant twenty miles per day with enough left for sleep and stops. Twenty miles per day times five days, and they would be there.
But it was best not to dwell overmuch on the math. If her calculations proved too ambitious, she could always adjust her numbers accordingly. Experienced mountain climbers tell neophytes, “Don’t look down.” Perhaps she needed to tell herself, “Don’t look ahead,” to hold off despair if unable to meet an arbitrary quota.
And so they rose and began. Getting to the interstate meant going through town and heading north along Sugar Mill Road. The absurd hour notwithstanding, there were bound to be a few drivers out and about but, God willing, none who would recognize her.
Cricket’s high-school American history text included an illustration of a World War II poster bearing the propaganda slogan “Food will win the war!” and, throughout her hurried preparations, she had inwardly repeated the principle like a mantra. Food for herself and for Smidge: that was the thing. Food would see them through their journey and deliver them in the end to Dunavant.
But now Cricket, who had never attended so much as Girl Scout camp, realized that this half-truth revealed her abysmal ignorance of life on the run. Safety was at least as important, that and civil engineering. She was an adolescent girl tramping through towns and across countryside and, while she hoped Smidge’s presence would lend a certain air of normality to their situation — a girl in sunglasses walking a dog, nothing more — sooner or later, she was sure to attract attention.
In more populated areas, she could resort to the classic ploy of androgyny by stuffing her hair under her crimson and white baseball cap and never taking off her jacket or sunglasses. And Smidge’s presence could also serve as deterrent as well as image. She was his willing rescuer; maybe he could return the favor.
As for civil engineering, Cricket figured that while the interstate was the shortest and most direct route, a guide as good as any map to their destination, between towns the best stratagem was to remain close, but not too close, to the superhighway. Remaining barely outside the shoulder and barely inside the tree and brush line had two advantages: it kept them largely out of view to motorists while simultaneously providing a quick approach to those same motorists should an unsavory-looking individual approach from the rough.
Additionally, ridiculous or not, the roar of deadly traffic so near had always had the power to freeze Cricket’s blood. Should a careening car or truck veer towards them, they wouldn’t stand a chance. Better to be situated between the interstate and the older thoroughfare used before the former existed. That way, highway sounds, dulled but still audible, reliably guided their course.
Frontage roads, easy to track, ran more or less parallel to the interstate in both urban and rural areas. Usually they did not come to a dead end but curved inward to merge with residential or commercial lanes. When they did dead-end, it became necessary to tramp across open ground in search of another frontage road, secondary highway or power line easement.
Towns were more easily traversed than open country. Their paved streets and sidewalks enabled faster and safer progress, whereas overland excursion, with its hidden holes and treacherous tree roots, required a constant vigilance that slowed her pace.
Two years earlier, when fifteen, she had badly twisted her ankle in Phys Ed and had been obliged to stay off it for two weeks. To sustain such an injury now would doom her project. Cricket strode with eyes cast downward, her gaze sweeping the ground from side to side as she held tightly to the dog’s leash.
* * *
Towards the end of the first day, when the ache in Cricket’s arms and shoulders had become critical, she and Smidge found themselves on the edges of a suburban subdivision. From where they stood, she could see that several households had put to the curb the common discards for pickup: broken toys, old furniture, obsolete appliances, stained carpeting and their ilk.
She adjudged none of it to be of any betterment to them and was about to divert her gaze in search of their next route when she spotted it. Closer inspection revealed an infant stroller partially hidden by a large box.
Cricket assumed that it had been cast off as no longer functional, but, after vigorously pushing it back and forth several times, she was delighted to find that, while slightly canted, the wheels were in basic working order, and the thing as a whole seemed sturdy if too faded and rusty for donation or yard sale. To boot, it was the covered kind, having a clear plastic pullover that protected anything inside.
Still paranoid about their fugitive status, Cricket hurriedly pulled it backwards behind them and did not stop before reaching a swampy grove about a hundred yards on. The under compartment was spacious, but she was careful to place in it only items light enough not to tear through the bottom. The heavier stuff she loaded onto the seat and, as she did so, pondered that were it a two-seater, such as the parents of twins purchase, she could transport Smidge in it also. Any time he should want it, she could still make enough room for him.
Throughout their first day on the lam, Cricket was planning their first night on the lam, that and those to follow. The strategy she settled on would prove to serve them well enough: each afternoon, before darkness, she began surveying the new locale for shelter. After making the best selection available, she and Smidge could not always occupy it forthwith and were sometimes obliged to wait in hiding until all personnel left and all signs of human activity ceased. That might not be before quite late, but the day’s journey invariably left them exhausted, and the delay afforded a much welcome rest.
Their first night was spent under the porte cochère of a real-estate office; their second, under a cemetery tent sheltering a new grave heaped high with flowers; their third, in a boathouse beside a small lake; and their fourth, in the rotting concession stand of a long-abandoned driving range.
* * *
Cricket’s calculations notwithstanding, by afternoon of the fifth day their food was running low, the precious cash spent at convenience stores where she had also cadged water and ice was all but gone, and they were still thirty miles short of their destination mainly on account of the frequent rest stops she provided for Smidge. She scanned her environs and spied a red, white, and blue sign proclaiming, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
“Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t, Smidge,” she told the dog. “Let’s see.”
A half-mile more, and they came to a beautifully tidy building in vernacular Gothic style with ample setback, a pleasant contrast to the surrounding suburban schlock. Adding to the charm was a lily pond on one side.
A goodly number of cars were around, all parked towards the rear beside the parish hall. After seeing people occasionally enter or exit the door on one side but never the other, Cricket took Smidge around to the unused side and stashed the stroller in the shrubbery.
Together they climbed the external stairway to a door on the second level, and to her delight Cricket found it unlocked. Stretching before them was a long hall which echoed with a babble of voices rising from a lower level. Nearby on the left were two doors marked Men and Women followed by a succession of open rooms on both sides.
“I think we’ve hit the lottery, Smidge, at least for tonight. A church function’s in progress. Whatever you do, don’t bark.”
After Cricket took advantage of the tiled facilities, she entered the next nearest room off the hallway. Wall posters clearly designed for a young audience depicted biblical scenes and verses, and the room itself was furnished with child-sized chairs and tables in sturdy blond wood. At the back was a spacious shelved closet where plastic bins of crayons, markers, coloring books, small toys, instructional materials and the like were stored.
Periodically she listened at the hallway door and determined that the babble of voices was diminishing, and from the window she saw cars leave one by one. Assuming that the last to go would lock up, she once again secreted herself and Smidge, and when no more sounds could be detected and no vehicles except the church bus remained, they emerged from the closet and headed for the undercroft.
In the kitchen’s refrigerator they found milk, juice, soft drinks, boxed wine, bottled beer, and a wide assortment of jams and jellies, sauces and syrups, condiments and salad dressings but not much in the way of decent edibles save for a large bag of shredded cheese and a dried out cake.
For more sustaining fare they were obliged to turn to the large, shiny, steel-door freezer which held soups, stews, casseroles, vegetables, meat patties and hot dogs in abundance. Cricket thawed and cooked her choices in one of two microwaves, and she and Smidge ate till they could stuff no more.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Edna C. Horning