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Illinois, 1995

By CJ MillerPublished 2 years ago Updated 7 months ago 5 min read

The woman in the alley is dying and I have no way to save her.

A tabby, lean and riddled with bald patches, slinks into her lap, his head coming to rest against her crumpled frame. As her breathing grows shallow, he begins to mew, quiet and mournful.

Her eyes search mine until they don't.

I've never been in the company of death. I want to run but my legs won't take orders. Blood is rushing through my head, causing my mind to spin on its axis.

The police are first to arrive. They remove the needle with an efficiency born of experience.

Stumbling, I go in search of a pay phone, knowing the officers are too busy to notice.

I have to call him.


I met Brian at the mall while shopping with friends. He was twenty to my sixteen and made me promises every girl longs to hear. My parents, both kind and generous, were no match for his generic charms.

He plied me with cheap alcohol and cheaper compliments. He begged me to run off with him, swearing we'd be together forever. When my father refused to let us see each other, I did as Brian asked, a lone act of rebellion in an otherwise obedient existence.

I announced my plans to leave during dinner one evening. Wincing, Dad massaged his chest. Lost to my rage, I assumed it was theater. It was only later that I remembered his heart.

Mom cried, her expression resembling that of a frightened child. I snuck away all the same, thinking I would never see that suburb, with its neon grass, again.

Believing, at Brian's insistence, that they wouldn't miss me.

There was no apartment with his name on the lease. His buddies turned out to be addicts. After two weeks spent drifting between filthy couches, we had it out, his fist narrowly missing my cheek before finding drywall.

This morning I awoke to discover his Mustang gone, completing the cliché. I'm alone in a foreign land. My Chicago starts and ends with museums, with field trips to the aquarium.

Today is homecoming. My dress, a gunmetal slip with teal trim, is still hanging from the closet door. I should be dancing to Madonna and choking on GAP cologne. I close my eyes, attempt to picture it, but the stench of trash is inescapable.

There are homeless folks everywhere I turn. Each has a history, hopes and dreams that deserve to know fruition. Tears threaten to well up, fierce and hot. I fight them off, not fit for such release.

I want to fix things, ease their pain, tell them it will be okay.

I can't even help myself.

It sets in that I, too, have no home. In a futile bid for warmth, I wrap my body in a hug, unworthy of my own affection.

I slide into a phone booth and grab the black receiver. Its heft is reassuring, as if to indicate I'm not going anywhere.

Out of habit, I jab the metal door on the coin return. A new quarter sits in the well, glinting up at me. I scoop it out, fingers trembling.

As if someone might catch me stealing, I push the change into the slot, holding my pointer there for good measure. After what feels like an eternity, there's a clang.

It barely rings once before his anguish fills my ear.


"It's me, Daddy."


Thirty minutes later, my father pulls up in front of the only landmark I could identify, the tailpipe of his station wagon scraping the ground.

In some other world, I was ashamed of our rusty clunker. Now it's the most welcome sight imaginable, a port in my self-induced tempest.

We ride in silence until he notices me shivering. It's a rainy autumn day and my bones are sodden to the marrow.

At a stop sign, he takes off his cardigan and drapes it over my shoulders, uttering comfort. Then he draws me into his side, rubbing my back in gentle, even strokes. I inhale, Old Spice replacing the horrors of the city.

Until this moment, I haven't cried. What breaks me is the blinker. As he turns onto our road, a green light on the dash starts to pulse.

Click. Pause. Click. Pause.

The steady sound is hypnotic, no less so than when I was a toddler. We'd go to the movies and I would doze off in the backseat, that click more effective than any infant's soothe-song.

He always carried me inside, as he will do once more tonight.

He cuts the wheel and we coast into the driveway. The porch lamp is on, soft and yellow like my bedroom walls. Knowing Mom, there's a pot of tea waiting, probably some cookies on a napkin, stale but well intentioned.

Dad kisses the top of my damp hair. "Ready, kiddo?"

"There was a cat," I say, my forcefulness bordering on hysteria. "I think—I'm afraid he just lost his owner, or that he's never had one."


"He was way too skinny. I should've taken him with me."

He squeezes my hand. "I'll go back tomorrow and look around. Will bring Missy's carrier. Don't worry, hon. The little guy can come live with us."

They say you can't go home again, that no one can love you until you learn to love yourself. I am eternally grateful that these wisemen, the omniscient they, are wrong.

familyShort Story

About the Creator

CJ Miller

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