Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Diana Richards has won our short story writing contest on the theme of The fools Journey with her piece "Cactus."
I can't add to the millions of statements from would-be writers as to why I write, and my biography isn't all that unique either: retired, like to write, writing is hard, love the library.
Perhaps it was a dream, she thought. Perhaps if she pinched herself, she would wake up. But she didn’t want to wake up. She wanted to stay in this dream world, where people said “Excuse me”, and “I’m sorry”, and “How are you”, and they meant it when they said it. Where if someone did something nice for someone, there was nothing owed. Where a smile was, really, just a smile.
She knew it wouldn’t last. She was ready to run at the smallest discord. She kept waiting for the heavy hand on her shoulder, the cold, impersonal voice: “You don't belong here”.
But it never happened. She was left gloriously alone. She began to believe it was really real, and she relaxed a little. She found work—legitimate work. Not much pay, but at day’s end she belonged to no one but herself.
She got a place, just a sort of living room and a kitchenette to the side. Furnished second-hand, an armchair, a table, a lamp. But there was a separate bedroom, with a door that locked. She learned to sleep unafraid. Mostly.
She was clean, really clean. She wasn’t happy, really. That was a long way off; even the meaning of the word beyond her. But she was clean, and (mostly) unafraid, and She. Did. Not. Want. To. Leave. This. Place.
So when she saw the cat, she almost killed it. It was black and very fast, and had somehow found its way into her place. It was eating her food—her food! She had almost forgotten what it was like to be hungry, and there was this—cat—eating her food!
She was quick, because she had to be, running from cops and stealing to live. Without thinking she scooped up the brick doorstop and fired it at the cat. It landed with a crash exactly where the cat had been, and if the animal had still been there it would have been dead. But no matter how fast she was, the cat was faster.
Feral. Nobody’s pet.
The cat streaked across the room and leapt out the window. Delia jumped right after it but it got away clean. There was a tear in the screen, the edges flapping in the breeze, just about big enough for a scrawny ten pounds of hungry animal to force its way in.
Poking her head through the torn screen, she caught a glimpse of a black, white-tipped tail snaking around the corner of the building. Not much over a hundred pounds herself, she pushed her narrow shoulders through the ragged screen, tumbling out onto the fire escape.
Just above the escape she spotted the ledge the cat must have used. Grabbing it with both hands she swung up, her sneakers finding the spaces left by missing mortar.
She got up on the ledge and stood, ignoring the traffic sixty feet below. Looking up, face pressed against the wall, she saw the cat on top of the building, one story above her. It was looking down at her, but how did it get…there! Decorative brickwork two feet away created a tiny stair upwards. She jumped across the space, just as the cat must have done, and crab-walked up the stepped bricks, clambering to the roof.
She spun around, looking for the cat. She was afraid she had lost it—she still wanted to kill the damn thing, just to make sure it never got into her food again. But then she saw it, on top of a pile of old bricks, washing its paws, eyes closed, its white-tipped tail curled around itself. Arrogant. Catch me if you can.
She reached for her knife, snapped it open. She crept forward slowly, silently, on the cat.
The cat opened its eyes and stared directly at her; in the next second it turned and disappeared behind the bricks. She ran after it, only to see it sailing across five feet of empty space to the next building. She skidded to a stop, stopped by a low wall at the roof’s edge. On the opposite roof, she could track the cat’s white-tipped tail for a little way. Then it was lost.
Panting in anger and frustration, she dropped to her knees, pounding her fists against the wall. “If I ever see you near my stuff again, cat, you’re dead,” she shouted. “Hear me, cat? DEAD!”
Her breath slowed and she stood, looking around to figure out how to get back home. She hadn't really known how much stuff was up there. Chimneys, vents, the access shack. The pile of bricks.
She heard voices. Shouting. A man and a woman.
Looking for the noise, she spotted an open window in the apartments across the narrow alley. A couple was arguing. She saw the man hit the woman. She fought back, but he hit her again. The woman fell to the floor.
Delia went over to the brick pile and picked one out, broken, sharp-edged. She returned to the wall and waited, muscles taut.
The man moved back, sideways in the window. Delia hurled the jagged brick, shattering the glass, smashing the man in the face as he spun in surprise.
He staggered back, his hands to his face, blood seeping through his fingers. The woman stood uneasily and stumbled away. There was the sound of a door slamming shut. The man flailed around, looking for help through blood-blinded eyes.
“Serves you right, you fucker,” Delia said, turning away and stepping across the gravelly roof to the access shack. A hard push broke the rusted latch. She went down the stairs, and then she was home.
Safe inside, she shut the window, not looking out, not caring what might be happening across the alley. She got a beer from the fridge. She went into the living room and flopped down in the one good chair. Drinking slowly from the cold bottle, she said to herself, quietly, “Well. That happened.”