Short Story by James Strauss
The child, who was not a child, crouched with his back to the warm window. It was below zero in Wisconsin, but not in the deep window well. A mouse looked up at him, its puzzled stare demonstrating no understanding, but also no willingness to back down. The child smiled. He looked down at his fellow traveler, but did not extend a hand. He knew about wild animals. Wild animals survived. Wild animals fought and died over territory. He was in the mouse’s territory, but he wouldn’t fight. They could not be friends. Wild animals had no friends. He knew that, at eight years of age, for he was a wild animal himself.
His name wasn’t Zack, but that was the name he called himself. His real name didn’t matter. The police couldn’t do anything with Zack, because he’d made the name up. A couple of times he’d been fingerprinted when he’d been remanded into the custody of youth authority. Each time he’d said his name was Zack. He’d taken the name from a cartoon he’d seen somewhere. The window was warm on his back. He turned his head to study it. The basement light was unaccountably on. If someone was in the basement he would be visible, but Zack had seen no one in all the hours he’d been there. The lock to the window wasn’t fastened. Zack pushed very gently, as he applied sideways pressure to the multi-layered glass. He didn’t have gloves. The glass at the bottom of the window well was very cold, even though it was much warmer than the temperature outside. The window moved; an inch; then a few more. Warmth cascaded out of the opening, filling the entire well. Zack checked back for his companion, but the mouse had disappeared. Zack was not disappointed. Everyone disappeared in Zack’s life.
He didn’t try to open the window far enough to enter the basement. He wasn’t stupid. If he went in and got caught the cops would be back quickly. If he stayed in the well he could jump out and run if he was somehow noticed, or lights started blinking in the distance.
The window was open about four inches when the cat appeared. A gray cat. Big. Sitting there in the basement, having come seemingly from nowhere. Zack felt a pang of fear. The cat was nearly a fourth of his own size. If it had claws it could hurt him, he knew. The cat stuck its head through the window, its eyes wide open, unblinking, as if in question. The cat stopped only when his muzzle was inches from Zack’s face. Zack stared. He didn’t know what to do. He’d never had a pet. Cats ran when they saw him. Dogs too. But not this one. Unable to stop himself, Zack reached out one dirty hand to pet the cat’s head. The cat did not react. It blinked once. Zack patted its head several times. When he stopped, the cat stepped all the way through the window, and then curled up on a spot of cold detritus made up of autumn leaves and junk that had fallen into the window well earlier, before the snow had come. Zack knew from that move that the cat was not a normal cat. Cats preferred warmth.
Zack stuck the fingers of his right hand into the cat’s gray fur. The cat looked up at him, but made no move. The boy’s hand felt wonderful. The cat’s fur was warm and it seemed to draw his fingers in welcome. Zack sighed deeply. This night was the best he’d had in a week, no matter what. Sleeping in the fields, even under rolled crops or piled hay, was pretty terrible. But that was before the colder temperatures. When it was as cold as it had become now, there was no sleeping outside. Zack intrinsically knew that. Falling asleep in the fields in such cold was to risk dying, and he didn’t want to die. So he’d come to this house. The lights on the trees had attracted him. There were other homes about, but they were all dark. He knew he would have been safer from discovery in one of those, unless it had an alarm, but the promise of warmth inside the home with the lights on, had drawn him in.
The lights were Christmas tree lights. A single tree, down the hill right, in front of the house, glowed. Across the back yard was a row of five more trees all lit up, as well. Only one tree, at the end of the five had colored lights. The rest were little white and yellow ones. Zack wondered why the one tree was colored. Deep snow covered the trees so the lights glowed in their colors.
Zack loved Christmas. Not for the presents. He’d never had a present. His family had not been a family at all, just a collection of people working together during the daytime and then laying around in different states of sleep at night. Zack loved Christmas because people were nicer during the Christmas season. They gave him money, sometimes. That didn’t happen during the rest of the year. But Zack wanted a present. One Christmas present would be okay. Zack sighed again. He didn’t know anybody. He’d run from where he had been weeks before. He’d only gotten out to the country because a drunken man had picked him up by the side of the road. He’d wanted Zack to drive for him, not understanding that Zack was only eight years old. Zack hadn’t minded the drunken drive. The car wandered all over the road but it had been kind of fun, probably like carnival rides he’d heard about but never experienced. A boy appeared in the window. Zack froze in terror. The boy called softly, not looking through the window.
“Harvey, Harvey, where are you?” The boy said the same words over and over, looking up into the basement rafters, then at the many boxes stacked along the concrete walls.
Zack looked down at the cat. The cat had to be named Harvey, but the cat didn’t move. Zack gave him a gentle shove toward the open window. The animal just looked up at him, as if he was smiling in pleasure at the other boy’s inability to find him. The boy, who appeared to be about Zack’s own age, turned to the open window, noticing it for the first time. He saw Zack. They stared at one another for a full minute.
“What are you doing with Harvey?” the boy asked, pointing at the curled up cat. The cat ignored the boy, remaining on the cold ground next to Zack’s foot.
“Nothing,” Zack whispered, truthfully, through the opening.
“It’s cold out there. Why are you there? It’s warm in here. Come in here, and bring Harvey.”
The small boy crossed his arms, waiting for his orders to be obeyed. Zack crawled through the window after pushing it open. He didn’t touch the cat. The cat seemed to know that he was supposed to follow, so he did. Both of them stood to face the child, once they were in and the window closed.
“You don’t look happy,” the little boy said, “but Harvey seems to like you. Do you live around here? I didn’t know there were any kids around here. All the rich people go back to Illinois at this time of the year, and they take their kids with them. Not that those kids like me anyway. I don’t have any friends.”
“I don’t know,” Zack said, hesitantly.
“You don’t know what?” the boy responded. Zack’s face grew red. He didn’t know what to say.
“I think I need to go before the police come,” Zack forced out, turning to look back at the closed window.
“Why would the police come?” the boy said, “Are you a criminal?”
“I don’t know,” Zack responded truthfully. “I don’t know what a criminal really is, but I may be one.”
“No, I don’t think so,” the boy replied. “I think you’re here because of Christmas tomorrow. I asked God for a different Christmas gift this year. I didn’t want a sled, an electronic game or a scooter. I wanted something interesting, like a real friend. My parents don’t understand me. So God sent you. Do your parents understand you?”
“I don’t really have parents, and I don’t know about God. I went to school, but only for a year. I’m not sure why. I learned to read, but I don’t have any books.”
The little boy reached out one small hand.
“I’m Clark, and I live here. You learned to read in one year? I can read now, but it took me three years. Maybe you can’t really read. Maybe you’re just saying that.” Zack shook the serious little boy’s hand. “That box over there says ‘Maytag, this side must always be up,” he intoned, pointing. Clark followed Zack’s gaze, then nodded.
“Okay, you can read,” Clark agreed.
“Why are you down in the basement?” Zack asked, tentatively.
“Harvey,” the little boy replied, instantly, picking up the big cat, but not for long. Harvey twisted and jumped down. The boy laughed, delightedly. “Harv’ is my only friend, but he runs away from me and hides. He likes the basement.”
“What time is it?” Zack asked.
“Almost midnight on Christmas Eve,” Clark responded. “My parents are asleep. They ‘over-served’ themselves a bit. That means they drank booze. That’s why all the tree lights are on again. I kind of like it. I can do whatever I want. What do you want?”
The question caught Zack off guard. He almost said that he didn’t know, but held back. He thought about what he really wanted.
“I’d like a present,” he said, smiling for the first time.
“Cool,” Clark said. “I’ve got lots of presents. Let’s go upstairs and check them out. They’re all wrapped but I’ve opened every one without Mom or Dad knowing about it. Maybe you can guess what’s in the boxes.” Without another word Clark walked to the stairs. Harvey followed the boy, then turned to look back. Zack realized that the cat was more like a dog than a cat. He liked that. He moved to follow the boy and the cat up the stairs, brushing the dirt and leaves from his clothes as best he could.
The house was warm. Clark led Zack through a hallway at the top of the stairs and into a front room library. A decorated Christmas tree stood against the outside window, its lights blazing with reflections of the lights in all the many decorations hung on its branches. In the distance, out the window, Zack could see the softened light of the snow-covered tree in the front yard. Clark and Zack moved presents about until they’d handled every one. Zack had not been able to guess any of the presents correctly, but he loved trying. There was only one flat box left.
“This is from my crazy grandpa. He’s crazy, but I love him. I never can guess what he’s going to give me. My Mom says that’s because he’s crazy. But that’s okay. Old people can be crazy and still love you. My grandpa taught me that.”
Zack handled the wrapped box. It was wrapped with some kind of bright gold paper. He shook it. “Gosh it’s pretty,” he said, delaying his guess.
“Yeah, my grandpa is colorblind so he goes for the wildest colors possible. He has no clue. That’s why the one Christmas tree outside is colored. It’s for grandpa. But he’s crazy, so it doesn’t matter. He makes believe he knows it’s colored just for me.” Zack nodded, as if he understood. He had no grandfather that he knew of. But the crazy grandpa sounded pretty neat to him.
“You can have it,” Clark said, out of the blue.
“What?” Zack asked, in puzzlement.
“The present. If you can guess what’s in it then you can have it.”
Zack set the box down and then slowly turned to leave. It was too much. He knew he could never guess what was in the box. It was like the rest of his life. He was never going to understand any of it. That was just the way it was. A tear almost rolled down his face. He grimaced. He would not cry. He could not cry. He was in the best Christmas place he’d ever been in his life. He wanted to crawl under the beautiful tree and sleep. Then wake up and live there.
“You don’t have to guess,” Clark said, somehow guessing what was going through Zack’s mind. Here, it’s yours. Merry Christmas. Grandpa is so crazy he’ll never know his gift isn’t there when he comes tomorrow.” Clark pushed the box toward him.
Zack fought his tears back, knowing that Clark knew he had almost cried. He liked the boy for ignoring it. “He’ll know. You’re not telling the truth. I can’t take it if he’ll know.” Zack slid the box back.
Clark sat back on his knees, staring at Zack. “Okay. You’re right. But grandpa is different. When he comes I’ll take him aside and tell him that there was this boy who came in the night and needed a present. Grandpa is the only person in the world who will understand. I just know it. He’ll just shake his head, smile, and like me even more.” Clark pushed the present back to Zack.
This time Zack grabbed the box and tore the wrapping off. It was a small model train. Inside there was a tiny transformer. He opened the box very carefully. The train was from Switzerland. Zack sounded out the word and liked the sound. Both boys worked to set up the tracks in an oval. They connected the transformer and plugged it in. The train ran. Zack couldn’t believe it. The present was a marvel of wonder. A small light illuminated the engineer in the engine compartment. They ran the train around the oval many times. Finally, Clark told Zack that he had to go to sleep. Carefully, they packed the train back into the well-formed box. Zack followed Clark upstairs to the bedrooms. Clark showed Zack his sleeping parents. Both of them snored gently.
“My Dad is kinda’ serious when he’s awake,” Clark said, “but he’s a great dad. He wears an expensive watch called a Breguet, which I’m not allowed to touch, but I do when he’s in the shower. Mom acts silly, but she’s not; she’s real smart; even though she’s a blond. She’s okay.”
Zack made believe he understood. They moved to the last bedroom on the floor. Clark climbed into his bed, and then pulled the covers up to his neck. A small blue blanket was on the pillow next to his head. He reached for it, inserting part of it into his mouth.
“Mom says I have to give up my blanket soon. Dad calls my blanket a rag and says it’s unhealthy.”
“It’s okay,” Zack said, standing next to the bed, with the train box under his arm, wondering what it would be like to have his own blanket.
“Will you be gone when I wake up?” Clark said, his voice beginning to grow sleepy.
“Yes,” Zack said, gazing down upon the boy.
“Are you the friend God sent me?” Clark asked.
“Yes,” Zack replied, not knowing why he said it.
“Will you come back again? You can live in the basement. Nobody will know. And then we can play every night when my parents are asleep. Harvey can play too.”
Zack stared at the boy. Clark’s eyes closed, then his breathing slowed, although the blue blanket never left his mouth. Zack reached for the light switch, and flicked it off. He stayed for a few more minutes, watching his sleeping friend.
When he was back inside the window well he crouched down. His back was to the glass, which felt icy cold. He would sleep until just before morning light and then go. The train set, his first Christmas gift ever, was clutched tightly under his right arm. Harvey lay stretched across his left ankle. Zack thought of Clark, in the bedroom way above him, as he waited for sleep to take him into the coming Christmas dawn.